East Ridge Mayor Brent Lambert said Wednesday that it could be the middle of June before the city can clear up land ownership issues at the Bass Pro Shops project site.
“The end result of development going on down there is that it is eminently worth what we are paying for that property” Lambert said.
The Mayor sat down with East Ridge News Online inside City Hall to flesh out issues concerning deed restrictions on property that Exit 1 LLC is developing for the future home of the Bass Pro Shops. At the last City Council meeting, Councilman Jacky Cagle asked about “problems” at the site.
During the City Council meeting, the Mayor explained that officials with the Tennessee Department of Transportation had contacted him last summer informing him of a deed restriction that the state put on the land when the city originally obtained it from the Tennessee Surplus Land Committee for $50,000. If the city stopped using the fire hall, East Ridge would violate the deed restriction and have to pay the state more money for the property.
How could city officials not know of a deed restriction?
On Wednesday, Lambert said then-City Attorney John Anderson, who helped shepherd the city through this deal, was under fire by the council. Anderson was terminated three weeks after the close of the sale, he said.
“Without being inside his (Anderson’s) brain, he may have known about it,” Lambert said. “We could have dealt with it in the ensuing 18 months. We had lost our only legal person we had working on it.”
Lambert told the council last week that the city is going to have to pay about $425,000 to the state to get the deed restriction lifted. Several council members have subsequently told this reporter that they were unaware until just prior to last week’s council meeting of any problems on getting clear title into the hands of the developers.
When asked if he was trying to keep this issue from the council, Lambert said that he considered it “an administrative issue.”
“Once TDOT informed me, from that point it became an administrative issue to me,” Lambert said. “I passed it to (City Manager Andrew Hyatt).”
Lambert said that the problem with the deed was discussed among staff in the kitchen of the community room during a council session there some months back. Lambert said he thought several council members were present and possibly listening or taking part in the discussion.
“I did not send a (e-mail) blast out to the council and say ‘this is what we’ve got,'” Lambert said.
When asked if perhaps he should have sent out an e-mail to the council, Lambert said that his impression from TDOT staff was that getting deed restrictions lifted was a “routine thing.”
“I knew there was a possibility this was going to cost us,” he said. “The Excess Land Committee could have said, ‘OK, the deed says we paid 29 percent of the appraisal. Tell (the city) to pay 71 percent.’ They could have said, ‘forget about it’ and lift the restriction. What they did was order a new appraisal in January (2015),” he said.
Lambert said that time was becoming a concern, given the fact that the developers had a self-imposed deadline of mid-April to have the city’s fire hall removed from the site. He said he asked Hyatt to contact TDOT to get some idea of when the new appraisal would be complete and the issue could be resolved. Lambert said local TDOT officials were not acting with a sense of urgency on the matter, so he contacted TDOT officials in Nashville, in particular, Steve Allen.
Lambert said Allen was able to get the appraisal fast-tracked.
“The appraisal came in on May 8,” Lambert said. “I called on Monday or Tuesday and asked what was going on, was there any news? They (TDOT officials) called me on Wednesday morning and said ‘yes, it’s not good.'”
The current TDOT appraisal of the six acres is $600,000, Lambert said. East Ridge must pay 71 percent or about $425,000 in order for the deed restriction to be lifted and the property transferred to Exit 1 LLC.
Lambert said that high-ranking TDOT officials have interceded and “expedited” the bureaucratic red tape at the state level, getting the issue before various committees. It is currently scheduled to come before the Executive Committee of the Building Commission on Tuesday, May 26. Then it will be heard by the full building commission on June 11.
“Theoretically, we could have this finished by June 12,” Lambert said.
Asked if the council needed to formally approve city staff cutting a $425,000 check, Lambert said no.
“We’ve made the obligation to turn over the property (to Exit 1 LLC),” he said. “I don’t think we need to take action. If the City Attorney thinks we need to do that to cover our bases, certainly we would do that.”