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Emails show Hofmann Forest nearly wasn't sold

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The controversial sale of the Hofmann Forest to Illinois agribusinessman Jerry Walker almost didn't happen, according to emails provided to the INDY by N.C. State University in a public records request.

Emails between Tom Percival, the Lumberton-based consultant for Walker's group Hofmann Forest LLC, and Dean Mary Watzin and David Ashcraft, of N.C. State's College of Natural Resources, reveal some disagreement between Walker and former members of his company regarding plans for the 79,000-acre property in Jones and Onslow counties.

On March 26, 2013, Percival wrote:

"After careful review of our meeting on Saturday, I write to express to you that Hofmann Forest, LLC will not be making an offer on March 29. While we appreciated the opportunity to communicate our goals and objectives, we have decided that our core goals do not align perfectly [...] We wish you the best moving forward in the sale of this prestigious and unique property."

Then, on March 29, following a phone call to Ashcraft, Percival wrote to say that Walker had reversed course:

"As I mentioned in my phone call, there was heartburn among certain members of Jerry's LLC about the desires of the Department of Defense and their ability to not provide funds until roughly 2016. That is the reason I emailed you to express our regret in the LLC having to back out of the process. Jerry, realizing what a unique property this is and what kind of opportunity it is, has dissolved those members from his LLC and has worked with the remaining members and added other members who align perfectly with the university and the DoD's wants and desires. Therefore Hofmann Forest LLC will indeed be making an offer on March 29."

Hofmann Forest LLC filed incorporation documents with the N.C. Secretary of State's office Jan. 30, nearly two weeks after Watzin, dean of the College of Natural Resources, announced the N.C. State Natural Resources Foundation had voted to put the forest up for sale. The foundation gifted the forest to N.C. State University's Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund in 1977; the nine-member board of trustees voted to approve the sale in mid-April.

The emails refer to a land-use deal with the U.S. military that has long been in the works. It is unclear whether the LLC's "objectives and goals," mentioned in the email, have to do solely with the military easement, of if they are broader.

Percival did not respond to requests for comment from the INDY by deadline.

Last Friday, a Wake County Superior Court judge ruled to dismiss a lawsuit brought against N.C. State by a coalition of professors, foresters, wildlife conservationists and landowners suing to stop the transaction on grounds that the sale would have a significant environmental impact.

"The role of this Court is not to decide whether the sale of Hofmann Forest is wise or ill-advised," wrote Judge Shannon Joseph in her decision. "Rather this Court must decide whether the North Carolina law on which the plaintiffs rely would entitle them to relief assuming their allegations are true. In this case, it would not."

Ron Sutherland, a conservationist with the Wildlands Network and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, says the group is "strongly leaning toward an appeal."

"Our lawyer is pretty convinced we have a decent shot in the appeals court," Sutherland said. "We have a good shot at getting our arguments heard completely. If we're able to win on appeal, the decision would set up a longstanding precedent that the State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) applies to the sale."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Let's almost not make a deal."

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