Sassafras Nature Preserve Update

STPAL, Sassafras GOSP Grant Application, September 29, 2020

Earlier this year STPAL began the process to apply for a large grant through the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Program (GOSP). This is the second year of the program which designates a portion of sales tax revenues related to outdoor recreation to fund new outdoor recreation opportunities for Georgians. The grants are awarded to ambitious and regionally significant outdoor recreation projects. The Sassafras property is 1,000 acres and our intended plans will make for an attractive application and ultimately a high quality regionally significant park. Terry Palmeri took the lead with the local project committee and made great progress towards the effort. She has lined up local volunteer, government, and funding support for the project. However, with the application deadline arriving soon on October 16th we will wait to apply next year for the following reasons.

  • We were delayed starting the site planning due to Covid-19 slowing down life in general. We knew it would be a tight turn to get the plan in time, but we were optimistic. Unfortunately, we still do not have the initial concept plan for a first review by the project committee and the STPAL board. This also means we do not have proposed budgets either. This project is too big and important to rush into an application without well vetted planning.
  • The project will require matching funds from STPAL of around $500,000. Our hope is to use in-kind donations, fundraising, and other grants to offset much of the match. However, we still need about that amount to finance the work as it progresses. It is prudent and may be attractive on the grant application to have our funds in hand. We have a property scheduled to close in mid-November and another in mid-January. Assuming they close we are great shape. But with all the current uncertainty anything could happen.
  • The project site does not have access to a county road nor an obvious area for the basis of the common areas and event parking. We are still identifying possible remedies but settled on a strong initial possibility with the landowner family expressing some possible charitable intent. To use grant funds for land acquisition we need an executed real estate sales contract contingent on a successful grant application. We need two qualified appraisals to support the purchase price of their 100-acre farm. We just received the second appraisal last week which took longer than expected and was significantly lower than the first appraisal. We do not know which is correct. This makes the negotiations with the family more complicated. We are also at a disadvantage by not having site plans to inspire their generosity. And without site plans we do not really know for certain how ideal their property is for the project.
  • And finally, if we continue the planning, community connecting, fundraising, commitment getting, and even some site work we will be ready to apply next year properly and confidently. We will have the additional time to prepare and plan. STPAL’s ongoing organizational advancements will continue. And presumably the land sales will be completed. With these benefits the change in plans may not significantly delay the project’s completion.

This is disappointing but ultimately a positive step.

The following is a draft narrative description of the project.

Bill Jones

Executive Director, STPAL

August 27, 2020

Sassafras GOSP APP

Project Narrative (500 word max)

Sassafras Nature Preserve and Park consists of over 1,000 acres of natural land in Gilmer County, Georgia owned by 501-C-3 non-profit public charity Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land, Inc, (STPAL). The initial phases of its transformation into a no cost public use recreation area will create regionally significant impact in the areas of economic development, public outdoor recreation, environmental stewardship, and public health.

The primary outcomes of the GOSP funding will be the acquisition of priority contiguous land, development of common area amenities, construction of 30 – 50 miles of multi-use (mountain bike, equestrian, hand cycle, hike, trail running) natural surface trail system, nature education elements, and habitat enhancement. The environmental stewardship efforts will prioritize Georgia DNR priority plant and animal species. Following this first phase of park creation there will be ongoing improvements such as: wildlife habitat projects; native plant propagation;  primitive, family, and RV camping areas; championship level disc golf course; adventure obstacle course; competition level archery range; radio controlled car and truck course; geocaching, demonstration garden and trellised apple orchard; playground; climbing walls; and other elements to be determined by user interest, environmental priorities, and remaining available land.

The planning and construction of the park will diligently adhere to prioritizing functionality balanced with minimal initial and ongoing expenses. For example, the trail system will be designed and constructed to fun and safe for all its user types. The rolling nearly southernmost Appalachian Mountain terrain advantageous to create a trail system appropriate for our objectives. The trail construction will utilize the most up to date best practices to be sustainable using proven techniques to mitigate the impact of heavy rain and usage. The trail system and common areas will be designed to accommodate regional and state level National Interscholastic Cycling Association competitions, mountain bike and trail running competitions including ones attracting out of state competitors, and other natural land appropriate events and festivals. The recreational elements will conform to their relevant and appropriate ADA requirements. Diversity of users is a priority goal.

The land acquisition achieves an optimal access point to a County road. It has advantageous terrain and past land usage adaptations for the common areas. The primary 100-acre acquisition tract includes the remnant of a long-time family home, large garden area, fishing pond, pastureland, and various age mixed hardwood pine forested areas. The dilapidated homeplace will be removed but the foundation will be used as the basis for a multi-use pavilion which will be the foundation of the cultural and historic elements.

Upon final site plan adoption +/- 500 acres of the site will be permanently conserved to remain natural and available for free public recreation usage. Upon park competition the balance of the Preserve will be conserved as appropriate. For example, the parking areas and park structures would be excluded. This conservation will in the form of a binding deed restriction and not create any tax related or other financial benefit to any entity. The only financial impact is STPAL’s loss of asset value which has a minimum value deduction of $2,000 per acre.

Sassafras Nature Preserve and Park will function as a local resource that will improve the day to day quality of life for the people of Gilmer, Fannin, Dawson, and Pickens counties. It will be beneficial for outdoor recreation enthusiasts and adventurous families from across Georgia. The trail system’s size, quality, variety, and common areas will attract day, weekend, and even full week visitors. Its usage for regional, state, and southeast US outdoor recreation-based events and competitions will bring sustained economic and community development to the north Georgia area. And it will enhance the “Mountain Bike Capital of Georgia” House Resolution 1611.

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