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Ban on UA land sale gains final OK

Legislation soon to go to governor by Stephen Steed | April 1, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.

The state Senate on Wednesday gave final approval to legislation aimed at halting the planned sale of part of a state research farm to a private entity.

Approved by a 31-3 vote, with one senator voting present, House Bill 1694 goes back to the House for transmittal to the governor.

Both the House and Senate approved the bill over the objections of officials with the University of Arkansas System, including President Donald Bobbitt and Mark Cochran, the system's vice president for agriculture.

Bobbitt and Cochran have told lawmakers that the legislation interferes with a legally executed contract and could spark a lawsuit for breach of contract.

The UA Agriculture Division -- and the system board of trustees -- agreed last year to sell 6,300 acres of the Pine Tree Research Station near Colt (St. Francis County) to Lobo Farms LLC. The acreage is wet and wooded, not conducive to the row-crop research conducted elsewhere on much of the station's remaining 5,000 acres. It has been open to the public for hunting, fishing and hiking for decades.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at arkansasonline.com/legislature]

UA bought the land in 1960 from the U.S. Forest Service, with the final payment made in 1978, but critics of the planned sale have noted that the 1960 deed requires the land be used for a "public purpose" or else its ownership reverts to the federal government, unless Congress approves a waiver.

Lobo Farms, in Poinsett County but led by an investment banker in Memphis, signed a contract last year to buy the property for about $17 million, plus a $1 million endowment to a wetlands conservation program.

The UA system and Lobo agreed last year to delay closing on the sale until the General Assembly this legislative session could decide whether to appropriate state funds to buy the land and keep it in public hands. Such funding hasn't been approved so far this session, Bobbitt and Cochran noted in recent testimony before lawmakers.

Justin Allen, a Little Rock attorney for Lobo Farms, also has said he doesn't believe the General Assembly can legally, and retroactively, void a legally executed contract.

HB1646 prohibits sale of the Pine Tree acreage unless it is to another state agency or to a nonprofit organization that keeps the land open to the public for at least five years. The bill's lead sponsors are Reps. Steve Hollowell, R-Forrest City, and Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, and Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne.

UA officials have said Lobo Farms emerged as the only prospective buyer after attempts to sell the land to the state Game and Fish Commission or to a nonprofit group failed.

The Agriculture Division has said $5 million of the sale's proceeds would be used as matching funds for construction of the Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center just south of Jonesboro. The Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board, which is funded by rice farmers, has pledged $5 million toward the new center's construction and millions more to its operations.

The sale's proceeds also would be invested in improvements at the Pine Tree station and other agriculture properties and in timber management and other UA conservation programs, the university has said.

The Senate put off Wednesday's budget calendar until today. That calendar included Senate Bill 447, an appropriations bill for the Agriculture Division. The bill also has special language prohibiting the sale to a private entity.

While the bill calls for $16.5 million for the new rice center, Bobbitt has told lawmakers it was his understanding and belief that the bill won't be fully funded under the state's budget process later this year.

Bobbitt also told lawmakers that UA officials, in putting the acreage up for sale, were complying with a directive from the board of trustees to inventory and sell unused property and were heeding lawmakers' instructions two years ago to find funding outside of state general revenue.

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