After Buying Nearby Property, Congressman Lobbied FAA to Approve Spaceport Camden

May 6, 2020

Congressman Buddy Carter represents the 1st District of Georgia, which includes Camden County. Camden County is the location of the proposed Spaceport Camden.

 

The Carter Transaction: On May 8, 2018, Buddy Carter purchased 471 acres on Sheffield Island in Camden County for $2,050,000. Representative Carter holds the property in his name at his home address in Pooler, Ga. The property is less than four miles off I-95 on Harrietts Bluff Road, the only access road to the proposed Spaceport which is about 7 miles straight-ahead. The property consists of 251 upland acres with more than 14,000 linear feet of marsh/river frontage. It was one of the last large tracts of developable waterfront property in the vicinity of Spaceport Camden. The property has never been developed or farmed and remains raw land with mature mixed forest. It is zoned R-1, Residential, which is the same as several nearby subdivisions.

 

 

The existing 33-lot subdivision immediately south of Carter’s property is zoned PD, Planned Development. The remaining acreage adjacent to Carter’s parcel (sharing the same access road) is currently offered as MLS# 1615574 and is approved for a 110-lot residential development: https://www.weichert.com/87790051/

 

"Prime residential development site located on Sheffield Island in Camden County, GA. This site has development rights for 110 single family residential lots. Great location east of Interstate 95, and just eight miles from the new Spaceport."

 

 

 

ISSUE #1: Carter Lobbies FAA.

On June 18, 2018, just six weeks after purchasing the property, Carter sent a letter to FAA Administrator Dan Elwell urging the FAA approve the Spaceport. Carter had circulated the spaceport letter to the entire Georgia Congressional delegation to gain their signatures indicating their support for Spaceport Camden.
See: https://buddycarter.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=3313

 

Does his self-interest compromise Carter’s attempt to influence the FAA decision?

The effort to get the entire Georgia Congressional delegation’s support for the Spaceport closely followed Carter’s purchase on the speculative tract in the vicinity of the Spaceport and also coincided with the June 14, 2018 closing of the FAA public comment period for the Spaceport Camden Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The proposed Spaceport requires FAA approval. Camden officials anticipated the FAA’s EIS approval and spaceport Record of Decision by December 31, 2018. Unless Carter told them, it is unlikely that Carter’s co-signers were aware that he had recently purchased a $2,050,000 property along the only road to the Spaceport.

 

As a property owner in Camden County, Carter has a right just as every other citizen does to voice their opinion to the FAA about the Spaceport. As a Congressman, he can be expected to express his political support and ask his fellow congressmen to also show their support. What he does not a right to do Is to use his elected position to influence a government agency in a way that could result in personal benefits for himself. The coincidence of Carter’s purchase for cash of a $2,050,000 property and his almost simultaneous effort to solicit a letter lobbying for a specific outcome that could protect or grow his recent real estate purchase appears to be conflict of interest.

 

Carter had viewed the proposed spaceport site with Jimmy Starline from a helicopter in 2016. The Brunswick News reported the visit of Congressman Buddy Carter:

 

"He [Carter] said the proposed launch trajectories won’t impact property owners with homes on the [Cumberland] island and on Little Cumberland Island."(Ed: The FAA disagreed)

 

National Park Service officials have expressed concerns that rockets flying over the island could result in closures, restrict visitor access and potentially endanger visitors.

“At this point, I truly believe these are things we can work out,” Carter said. (Ed: Only by accomplished down-sizing the rockets and picking a single trajectory)

 

Carter said a spaceport would lead to jobs, new businesses and economic development in the region. “In Camden County, we need economic diversity,” he said. “If we can find that big fish, it can have a ripple effect. The possibilities are unlimited.” (Ed: As of this writing, not even a tadpole has committed to Spaceport Camden.)

 

Camden County Administrator and Spaceport Project Lead, Steve Howard stated in the June 2018 Press Release accompanying the Carter-generated letter of support to the FAA, that “Commercial Space Operators are taking note of the favorable business climate and overwhelming political support for space exploration in Georgia. We are already receiving significant interest from companies looking to locate their operations in Camden.”

 

Although there was no evidence that the Spaceport can repay the local tax dollars already spent on it, it is self-evident that Carter believed his coordinated letter would provide economic benefits to Camden County.

 

The availability of marketable property, especially for potential water-fronting residential subdivisions on Harrietts Bluff Road, has been significantly reduced. THE NATURE CONSERVANCY & OPEN SPACE INSTITUTE LAND TRUST INC., in a concerted effort to preserve one of the last remaining, large undeveloped areas on the US east coast, had bought or were buying tracts exceeding 40,000 acres along Harrietts Bluff Road, including the famed Cabin Bluff hunting and fishing resort.

 

Spaceport promoters created a speculative market for Camden County real estate by insisting that spaceport development would create hundreds to thousands of high-paying jobs on the Georgia Coast. In 2014, County Administrator Steve Howard referred to a Florida study determining the economic impact of a spaceport in Florida estimating the creation of 2,500 new jobs. Spaceport Camden promoters predicted large numbers of potential jobs despite evidence that non-NASA spaceports do not produce a significant number of jobs and that spaceport subsidies and government financing are perpetually required. The Florida Shiloh project was canceled due to a lack of need. On September 2, 2015, Florida’s US Senator Bill Nelson expressed his “informed opinion based on his conversations with principals and published reports that Shiloh [Spaceport] wouldn’t be necessary.” Shiloh Spaceport was proposed as the launch site for Blue Origin, or SpaceX, both of which chose sites immediately adjacent to or on existing Kennedy/Canaveral properties.

 

Spaceport Camden held the FAA Scoping meeting on December 7, 2015, three months after Florida's US Senator announced the cancellation of Shiloh Spaceport due to "Lack of Need."

 

Eventually, Howard’s Spaceport Camden purely fictional “economic study” indicated 111 direct and induced jobs would be created for Camden’s spaceport accommodating SpaceX Falcon 9-size rockets. In  December 2019, Camden downsized its FAA Site Operators License application to the smallest class of rockets.

 

Harrietts Bluff Road, exit 7 on Interstate 95, is the sole gateway to the proposed Camden spaceport. The real estate market that at the time of Carter’s purchase anticipated Harrietts Bluff properties would benefit from its proximity to the proposed Spaceport. Carter’s property was among the last remaining large, waterfront, potential development sites on Harriett’s Bluff. It is presently zoned R-1, Residential the same zoning as subdivisions developed along Harrietts Bluff over the past 20 years.

 

Irrespective of Carter’s stated intent, his coincidental interest in a 1st(2nd) home on 451 acres in Camden along Harrietts Bluff Road is odd. He paid high, speculative pricing compared to other raw land sold in 2018 that is within sight of his purchased site.

 

 

ISSUE #2: Has Carter received preferential treatment on property taxes?
The Carter property was reassessed by the Camden County Tax Assessor in 2019, a year after Carter purchased the large tract. The property had been assigned a fair market value of $272,883 for the years preceding Carter’s purchase. Carter paid $2,050,000 for the property. Carter’s 2019 reassessment fair market value was established at $273,810. There is no indication in the public tax record that the property qualified for or received a reduced assessment under any Georgia Department of Revenue regulation. The property does not appear to qualify under the Georgia Conservation Use (CUVA) Land Act, Forest Land Protection Act (FLPA), Preferential Assessment for Agricultural and Forestry Property (Preferential Assessment), or Residential Transitional Properties rules. Unless the property has received CUVA or FLPA status, the Fair Market Value should have been established closer to the $2,050,000 purchase price.

 

Tax Discussion: For the 2019 tax year, the Camden Tax Assessor reassessed Mr. Carter’s raw land tract 119 004E and the immediately adjacent raw land tract 118 004G held by another party. Following his purchase of the land for over $8,000 per upland acre, Mr. Carter’s property was revalued upwards a mere $3.69 per upland acre to a total of $273,810, reflecting an average of $1,087 per upland acre. Adjacent tract 118 004G received a valuation of $3,514 per upland acre. Both are abutting properties, are served by the same unpaved road, and have similar raw land and marsh front characteristics.

 

The table compares 4 parcels cut from the same original Sheffield Stafford tract:

 

 

NOTES TO THE TABLE:

Some of the values cannot be duplicated when compared to other properties in the broader Harrietts Bluff area.

 

The CARTER property looks like it could have had the CUV applied but there is no indication that an application was made or approved, and there is no indication of the required 10-year covenant. Tax records show no indication of the required 10-year Covenant. Carter’s has no entry for “Other Value” in the Tax Assessment Notice. Otherwise, the Fair Market Value should have been something close to the purchase price of $2,050,000. 

 

Georgia Law (O.C.G.A. 48-5-1) says “The intent and purpose of the tax laws of this state are to have all property and subjects of taxation returned at the value which would be realized from the cash sale(…).”

 

Sounds simple enough.

 

As it stands, the Carter Property has an exceptionally low valuation especially if the marsh acreage were valued the same as the Sheffield Estate (see below). The Carter valuation appears to be inconsistent with other similar, nearby properties.

 

Without the 10-year CUV Covenant, Carter can sell or change the use of the property without penalty. If the property is encumbered by the CUV Covenant, a substantial sell or change penalty is applicable.

Carter could clarify his intent to keep the property for personal recreational use by applying for the CUV tax benefits he appears have. The consequence is that he will have to keep the property in its current use for 10 years or pay the penalty.

 

The RICE property has the CUV Covenant and its calculated value is equal to its Actual valuation for tax purposes. The CUV value is shown on the 2019 tax assessment as “Other Value.”

 

The SCHIFENELLA Property is comprised of 3 adjoining properties combined and listed for $1,050,000. Using the same calculation applied to the Carter property, the taxation on Schifenella is 5X higher than if  the property had been calculated with CUV. Schifenella’s 147 acres are valued higher for taxation than Carter’s 451 acres. This is the property being offered as MLS# 1615574 as approved for a 110-lot residential development: https://www.weichert.com/87790051/

 

The SHEFFIELD Estate Property is included because it is 100% Marsh indicating that the County values marsh very low. But this is not consistent across other properties I’ve studied.

 

 

Issue #3: Carter did not reveal the purchase transaction on his US House Financial Disclosure Reports.

 

More specifically, the following US Code controls reporting of a $2,050,000 real estate transaction:

5 USC App 102: Contents of reports

From Title 5-Appendix

ETHICS IN GOVERNMENT ACT OF 1978

TITLE I-FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE REQUIREMENTS OF FEDERAL PERSONNEL

§102. Contents of reports

(a) Each report filed a pursuant to section 101(d) and (e) shall include a full and complete statement with respect to the following:

(5) Except as provided in this paragraph, a brief description, the date, and category of value of any purchase, sale or exchange during the preceding calendar year which exceeds $1,000-

(A) in real property, other than property used solely as a personal residence of the reporting individual or his spouse;

The last amendment to 5 USC App 102 was made in 2012, prior to Carter’s election to Congress.

 

The following is the exact quote from the House Reporting Rules in the TRANSACTION section that applies to real property that does not require reporting:

 

“The purchase or sale of property used solely as a personal residence (including a secondary residence not used for rental purposes) of the reporting individual or spouse and transactions solely by and between the reporting individual and his or her spouse or dependent children need not be disclosed.”


Additional House reporting instructions indicate that reporting is not required for personally-owned ‘recreational use' property that receives no income  although that interpretation seems to contradict the code. In such case, the reporting requirement is based solely on the member’s claim that the intent of the purchase of any property is for a non-disclosable exemption. This seems to be in contradiction with the applicable code but that is outside the scope of this discussion. The implied interpretation allows a member to acquire many such properties without reporting the purchase or selling transactions, or reporting any gains in sale, as long as they are claimed as "recreational" use properties.

 

Comment:

Is it reasonable, or the intent of the law, that a Congressman could own an Aspen ski chalet, a beach-front condo for deep-sea fishing, a bird-hunting lodge on 3,000 acres, and a mountain-top villa for bird-watching, all without reporting the purchase or eventual sale for a profit? Carter says his “intent is to either leave the property as-is for now or to build a second home,” but he already has a second home, also unreported, across from the World of Coke in Atlanta. Does he also have a property in Washington, DC?

 

Although the House reporting instructions allow non-reporting of “recreational” property, the plain word meaning of the House Code appears to exclude real property that is not a member’s primary or secondary residence. The purchase has the appearance that Carter is speculating on potential development predicated on FAA approval of the Spaceport and that he used his elected position in an attempt to influence the FAA decision.

 

We should expect Carter to follow the advice of the Chief Ethics Counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics’ in Washington that Carter disclose it all and let his constituents decide. Why does he not want us to know?

 

ISSUE #4: Like the spaceport expenses, virtually none of Carter’s investment in Camden County stayed in Camden County.

 

This issue is primarily of concern to Camden taxpayers. The seller’s address is in Winter Park, Florida. Carter used a Glynn County closing attorney. The one-time property survey fee was paid to a Camden company. The buyer lives in Chatham County and has likely visited his property on day trips. Perhaps he has bought gas and a few meals in Camden County before he returns to Pooler, Atlanta, or Washington. There have been no improvements made to the property.

 

Interestingly, the above economic model is similar to how spaceports work. Camden Commissioners send millions of dollars out of state for spaceport expenses with a small portion spent in Camden County. Small rocket spaceports normally see workers fly-in for launches, and then return to their normal worksites. Even SpaceX’s EIS for Boca Chica recognizes that a permanent workforce is small compared to the temporary workforce required for a launch campaign. Kodiak Spaceport has only six fulltime positions budgeted in 2020. Carter’s $2,050,000 property provides a very small portion of its “Fair Market Value” to Camden County’s tax digest. If he is not “resident’ in Camden County, he adds very little to Camden’s fiscal welfare.

 

UNANSWERED CARTER PROPERTY QUESTIONS:

  1. Can Carter afford a $2 million raw land property for recreation? The Camden property purchase represents approximately 16% of Carter’s Net Worth.

  2. Why did Carter buy unimproved raw land in Camden County in 2018 when there are thousands of vacant, developed lots in Camden subdivisions, many valued at $1,000 to $4,000. Carter paid more than $8,000 per raw upland acre. Misty Harbor, a 20-year old subdivision sharing the opposite shoreline (one of the top subdivisions in Camden county) has <25% build-out. Carter paid more per acre than improved acre+ lots sell for in a neighboring subdivision with utilities, drainage, curbed paved roads, and HOA common areas including gated security, boat ramp, playground, dock, pool, and tennis courts.

  3. Was the property for sale on the open market before Carter’s purchase?

  4. Is it just a coincidence that Carter bought one of the few remaining large tracts on the sole access road to the Spaceport, then in the immediate weeks following, solicited signatures from the entire Georgia Congressional delegation lobbying the FAA to approve the Spaceport?

  5. Did the Camden tax assessor give Carter a break on the property taxes in the same year that Camden raised millage rates to balance the budget?

  6. Who approved the reevaluation of the $2,050,000 Carter tract that resulted in less than a $1,000 increase in the Camden tax digest? On what basis was that approval made?

  7. The FAA forewarned Jimmy Starline and the Commissioners in December 2019, that “Even with the proposed narrowing of your application scope, there is no assurance the FAA will make a favorable license determination in view of the issues raised above.” Could Carter’s ownership of developable property in the vicinity of the spaceport influence the County Commission’s decision to continue with the spaceport application?

REFERENCE

Georgia Law on Property Valuation

 

O.C.G.A. 48-5-1 (2010)
48-5-1. Legislative intent

“The intent and purpose of the tax laws of this state are to have all property and subjects of taxation returned at the value which would be realized from the cash sale, but not the forced sale, of the property and subjects as such property and subjects are usually sold except as otherwise provided in this chapter.”

 

O.C.G.A. 48-5-7.4.

Properties may receive reduced assessment values if the property receives a “current use assessment under O.C.G.A. 48-5-7.4. A “current use assessment” requires that the property is placed into a 10-year conservation covenant” which allows the current use value of the property. The owner must apply for, and be assigned, one of the following classifications:

 

A - Agricultural

Classification of all real and personal property utilized, or best suited to be utilized, as a farm unit.

Includes the single-family homesite which is an integral part of the farm unit, the farm family

residence, the non-residential homesite improvements, the non-homesite farm land and the

production and storage improvements (barns, silos, etc.). This use classification also includes the

personal property owned and used on the farm unit (tractors, livestock, grain, etc.) and the nonfarm

use personal property (boats, 4-wheelers, etc.) of the family residing in the farm home.

P - Preferential

Classification of covenanted agricultural properties. By entering into a ten-year covenant and

devoting the property to an agricultural use, the owners may receive a 25% preferential

assessment discount on land and improvements put into this program.

V - Conservation Use

Classification of covenanted agricultural properties. Similar to Preferential, owners of agricultural

land and improvements may elect to enter into the conservation use program and have their

property valued based on its current use as farmland rather than its prospective use as residential

or commercial land. The owner must enter into a ten-year covenant and will have their land valued

according to a table developed by the State. There are substantial penalties for selling the land for

residential or commercial development before the expiration of the ten-year covenant.

 

The Carter property is currently assigned and taxed in the “A-Agricultural” classification even though the land remains raw and undeveloped. According to public tax records, the property has not been assigned a  Conservation Use valuation classification.

 

Property Tax Incentives for the Georgia Landowner,

UGA Center for Forest Business, Izlar, Li

 

Certain landowners may have alternatives for how value is determined. As of January 1, 1992, owners of eligible land have four options for determining bare land value.

These alternatives, as discussed in this presentation, include:

• Fair Market Value (FMV), the primary property valuation method in use in Georgia;

• Preferential Assessment for Agricultural and Forestry Property (Preferential Assessment);

• Current Use Valuations of Conservation Use Properties (Conservation Use Valuation);

• Residential Transitional Properties; and

• Forestland Protection Act.

Land may only be valued for ad valorem taxation under one of the above alternatives.

No combination of programs is allowed on the same land. The Agricultural Preferential Assessment, Current Use Valuation and Forest Land Protection Act programs require certain commitments on behalf of landowners and are available to owners of qualifying properties only.

 

Georgia Rules and Regulations Rule 40-29-.01 Definitions:

(1)“Agricultural product” - Items produced by agricultural operations.

 

(2)“Agricultural operations” - Used synonymously with ‘agricultural purposes’ and means the following activities: raising, growing, harvesting, or storing of crops, including, but not limited to, soil preparation and crop production services such as plowing, fertilizing, seed bed preparation, planting, cultivating, and crop protecting services; feeding, breeding, or managing livestock, equine, or poultry; producing or storing feed for use in the production of livestock, including, but not limited to, cattle, calves, swine, hogs, goats, sheep, equine, and rabbits, or for use in the production of poultry, including, but not limited to, chickens, hens, ratites, and turkeys; producing plants, trees, fowl, equine, or other animals; producing aquacultural, horticultural, viticultural, silvicultural, grass sod, dairy, livestock, poultry, egg, and apiarian products; processing poultry; post-harvest services on crops with the intent of preparing them for market or further processing, including but not limited to crop cleaning, drying, shelling, fumigating, curing, sorting, grading, packing, ginning, canning, pickling, and cooling; slaughtering poultry and other animals; and manufacturing dairy products. Agricultural operations do NOT include constructing, installing, altering, repairing, dismantling, or demolishing real property structures or fixtures, including, but not limited to, grain bins, irrigation equipment, and fencing.

 

TAX ASSESSOR NOTES:

Apparently the Camden Tax Assessor could not confirm that a two million dollar transaction is arms-length due to lack of copperation from the seller and buyer. However, the required PT-61 Real Property Sales Transaction Form filed in the Camden County Superior Court Records shows the $2,050,000 selling price. That document should indicate a default Fair Market Value of $2,050,000 unless there is proof or some extenuating circumstance. Lacking the seller's or buyer's cooperation, and a clear justification for reduced valuation, it appears that Carter received an unreasonable reduction in property taxation.


 

 

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