Some legislators join UT in defending $16M purchase of West TN farm

Top University of Tennessee officials and some state legislators vigorously defended the university’s planned $16 million purchase of a 1,200-acre Hardeman County farm and its improvements at a hearing, reports Richard Locker. UT plans to use the property as a regional 4-H camp and conference center.

The purchase has generated some criticism because the price is more than three times the $4.6 million the county’s tax assessor had valued the farm for property tax purposes. That figure is in line with an independent appraisal conducted for the state and the owner, although that appraisal also drew some questioning because it included among its analysis of comparable sales two properties near Nashville, where property is much higher-priced than in rural West Tennessee.

State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, wrote to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, in January that “the state may be on the verge of substantially overpaying” for the property. On Wednesday, during the Senate Education Committee’s higher-education budget hearing, Kelsey questioned UT President Joe DiPietro, Dean of UT Extension Tim Cross and Robbie Stivers, who heads capital projects for the UT system, on the purchase.

“Is that a wise use of University of Tennessee funds?” Kelsey asked.

“Yes, I think it’s a very wise use of University of Tennessee funds,” DiPietro said. “We really feel the appraisal is lower than what the property is actually worth or valued at based on the improvements.”

The owner is Memphis developer Scott Ledbetter, founder of LEDIC Management Group and active for years in civic projects, including chairman of the Pyramid reuse committee. He told the Commercial Appeal last month the state is getting a great deal on his Lone Oaks Farm and that he’s selling only because it will be used for 4-H. Out of 32 parcels he bought since 1998 to assemble the farm, he’s selling 27, or 1,200 acres, and keeping the rest.

He’s built 11 houses, lodges and cabins, along with a barn, cattle-handling facility, horse stable, event center and tool museum — a total of 25 structures. The property has lakes, ponds and streams and about 15 miles of trails. The private appraisal says he spent about $30.3 million on the land and improvements.

Cross, whose UT Extension Service sponsors 4-H programs for youth statewide, and DiPietro, who headed the UT Institute of Agriculture before the university system’s presidency, said those features make it perfect for the 4-H campers and also for non-4-H conferences, workshops and retreats year-round for which UT will charge fees that will help maintain the farm.