County claims secrecy for hunt club bids

Published 6:26 pm Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Surry County group tripled local bid for Blackwater property privileges

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor


That was the status of three bids submitted by local hunt clubs concerning the publicly-owned Blackwater property, according to Isle of Wight County staff. 

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The Board of Supervisors has tabled action on the bids, but Isle of Wight Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson said now that the bid price secret is out, the county may start the process all over again.

Sources close to the organizations have indicated that Bacon’s Castle Hunt Club in Surry County submitted a bid more than three times higher than Mill Swamp Hunt Club.

Mill Swamp, which has leased the 1,800-acre northern tract of the property for years, bid $5,000 a year, while Bacon’s Castle offered $18,000, according to sources. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Bacon’s Castle Hunt Club President Jim Adams confirmed the amount. He was told the bids were secret so that none of the bidders wouldn’t know the amounts. 

But since they’re now in, there’s no reason not to look at them, he said. Bids closed out on June 26.

That puts Bacon’s Castle offering at $10 an acre compared to Mill Swamp’s $3.60 an acre. 

Isle of Wight Hunt Club was the only bidder on the smaller tract, about 700 acres, at $2,500 a year, according to sources. Isle of Wight Hunt Club has also leased that tract for years. Their offer equals about $1.70 an acre. 

In their previous leases, the hunt clubs had paid a bit more. Mill Swamp paid about $7.90 an acre and Isle of Wight paid about $3.40 an acre.

When asked for a copy of the bids, Isle of Wight Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson said they were not public because the Board of Supervisors had not yet made a decision.

However, that hasn’t always been the case. When the Board was trying to sell some county-owned property to balance its budget in 2012, the bids documents were immediately available to the public. Overall bid amounts were also made public for work at the fairgrounds and the Young-Laine Courts Building

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice was willing to provide the bids, but when he checked with county staff, Grice was told that the bids were not public because they were RFPs (requests for proposals) and the Board had not yet made a public declaration, so therefore they are not available to the public.

The RFP on the county’s website includes a page that tells bidders that they must specifically list trade secrets or proprietary information submitted, and must be indicated with specific words, figures or paragraphs, portions that are not to be publicly available because of trade secret status. 

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act, Section 2.2-4342F, references RFPs, and says that when proprietary information is claimed, “The designation of an entire proposal document, line item prices and/or total proposal prices as proprietary or trade secrets is not acceptable.” 

Propriety information generally refers to secret formulas, processes, methods, salary structure and other information used by business. 

Alan Gernhardt, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, said that if this is a Virginia Public Procurement Act transaction, then the bids would not have to be released to the public until after the contract is awarded. The Public Procurement Act is used when a public body is purchasing goods and services.

Gernhardt cites item C in the same code section stating that in a competitive bid situation, the bidders can look at the bids after they are received, given certain conditions, but they shall not be open to public inspection until after the contract is awarded. 

Robertson didn’t reference FOIA about releasing the bids to the public. He said the refusal is based on county policy.

“No proposals shall be handled to permit disclosure of the identity of any offerer or the contents of any proposal during the process of negotiation,” according to county policy. 

That means that the bids are still up for negotiation, but if the public knows the contents, then it may invalidate the process and the county will have to start over, said Robertson. 

County attorney Bobby Jones said the county policy is based on state law, specifically 2.2-3705.1 and 2.2-4342. 

As for the bid amounts being out on the street, Jones said, “They always are.”

In addition to the annual payment for hunting rights, the RFP asked applicants to show that its members are properly licensed to hunt, any history of safety violations, any history of contract violations or environmental problems and understanding of best practices for the environment while on the property. 

Competition for the land has led to tensions in the past. At one time there was a residency requirement for club members and that became a point of contention, with one club accusing the other of creating fraudulent rosters. 

Prior to this round of bids, hunt clubs had to have 51 percent of its members be Isle of Wight County residents. 

That requirement was dropped this time and that’s why Bacon’s Castle submitted a bid, said Adams, adding the club has about 45 members.  

Adams said most of the members live outside of Surry, but their dogs are kenneled in Surry, and the club meets there.

Another reason Bacon’s Castle is eyeing land in Isle of Wight is that the club has lost access to about a third of the land it has hunted in the past, said Adams. 

Bacon’s Castle submitted an unsolicited offer of $26,000 for that land last year but it wasn’t accepted, he said. 

As for the Blackwater property, Adam said he’s “never stepped foot in it.” 

Adams said leasing land for hunting works a bit different in Surry County with private landowners. Landowners generally ask the hunt club to at least pay the taxes on the land, he said, adding that it can get a bit pricey.  

Surry County doesn’t have land use taxation, which taxes land uses for agriculture, forestland and or open land based on its use rather than market value. Isle of Wight practices land use taxation.

Based on information from a Surry County landowner and Bacon’s Castle, hunt clubs usually pay $10 to $15 an acre in Surry. 

It’s difficult to “intrude” in another county, but it was offered publicly through the RFP process, said Adams. 

The hunt clubs winning the bids would be allowed to hunt three days a week — Thursday, Friday and Saturday — for seven weeks during deer hunting season. The clubs would also be responsible for maintaining the many paths that currently exist on the roughly 2,500-acre property. 



County staff not ready to open Blackwater property

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

County staff have said they are not ready to open the Blackwater River property to the public. In addition to club hunting, the roughly 2,500-acre publicly-owned property is also to be open for public hunting, both deer and turkey, as well as bicycling, kayaking and canoeing, hiking and for those looking for rare plants and animals. 

Public users will be required to buy a yearly $35 permit.

Isle of Wight County Parks and Recreation Director David Smith said that the task force that came up with the proposal approved by the Board has now morphed into an advisory board. 

Of those members, subcommittees have formed to cover various areas, such as signage, permitting, gates and parking and boundary marking. 

The advisory board has made some progress, but the process has proved to be more cumbersome than initially thought, said Smith. 

It’s the permitting process that appears to be the biggest challenge, and most of that is technical difficulties, said Smith. 

The current software is outdated and a new system is being installed, as well as the county’s website being updated, he said. 

Smith said he would prefer to take as much time as necessary.

“We have one shot to open this to the public … I would rather take the time to do it right than do it fast,” said Smith, adding that he doesn’t want the project to end in a “complete mess.” 

Smith estimated that the permitting system could be up and running by the end of this coming hunting season, which ends in January, but not by the time it starts, he said. 

Isle of Wight Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson said that time frame may be optimistic, as the new website could take months. 

Smithfield Supervisor Dick Grice was concerned that the maintenance portion of the hunt club request for proposals was too vague.

He wondered if the hunt clubs were aware of what it takes to maintain the paths that run through the property. 

Grice was willing to slow it down and so was Carrsville District Supervisor Don Rosie. 

“If we’re not ready yet, we’re not ready yet,” said Rosie.   {/mprestriction}