A Columbia County official confirmed Friday speculation that the county attorney also acted as the closing attorney for Martinez land on which an “affordable housing” development is under construction.
Facebook group “Say No to Magnolia Trace Housing Project” posted Thursday to the Web site that Columbia County attorney Doug Batchelor worked on the deal to close the sale of the property on Old Ferry Road. It didn’t specify if Batchelor worked for the seller or buyer.
“As far as I know, (Batchelor) did the land closing,” county Commission Chairman Ron Cross said. “I don’t know who he was working for.”
A phone message left Friday afternoon on Batchelor’s mobile phone wasn’t immediately returned.
The revelation comes about five weeks after county commissioners voted to hire an outside attorney to seek a means to “interrupt” construction of the 15-acre development featuring 50 single-family rental homes. Later, Savannah lawyer Patrick T. O’Connor wrote to officials that they had no legal recourse to stop the project.
Commissioners endorsed Magnolia Trace with a June 2010 resolution on behalf of developer Affordable Equity Partners and sent to the state Department of Community Affairs. The Missouri-based company was seeking tax credits from the DCA to build the low-cost rental homes.
At that Dec. 6 meeting, in which hundreds of angry residents surrounding Magnolia Trace protested the commission’s endorsement of the project, Batchelor publicly offered a lengthy description of the resolution and the county’s involvement with the property.
However, at no time during his speech did Batchelor reveal that he or his law firm, Hull Barrett Attorneys, had a professional stake in the property.
“I don’t think it’s unusual for him to close land transactions that may or may not have some kind of connection to the county,” Cross said of Batchelor’s involvement.
“People are just trying to put something out there when there is nothing really there. If he performed a service and got paid for it, I think that’s fine.”
Batchelor isn’t contracted by Columbia County, said County Administrator Scott Johnson. Instead, he is “engaged” by the county, earning $142.40 per hour for his services.
From 2008 to 2011, Hull Barrett earned about $830,000 paid from the county’s general fund. Johnson said Friday that he didn’t immediately have access to how much Batchelor and his firm might have earned from other county funds.
“Batchelor’s firm handles everything legally that can be handled,” Cross said. “That’s why we use them, because they’re a full service firm. He does all of our real estate stuff.”
Also, Cross said, Hull Barrett’s rates are low compared to other firms of similar size.
Defending Batchelor, Cross said conspiracy theories regarding Magnolia Trace and county officials are unfounded.
“We don’t have anything to hide,” he said. “I’m sure the county attorney feels the same way.”
Reach Donnie Fetter at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115 or