Near the end of February, I was nearing completion on an article about local developer Wendell Wood’s land sale to the Army for a new facility to be built next to the National Ground Intelligence Center (off Route 29N), but I was missing a key piece of information. In return for Wood selling 47 acres at what he said was less than appraisal value, Albemarle County had voted to redesignate another piece of his land into the Growth Area for Rural. The developer had sold for $7,000,000, that much was known. The appraisal, deemed classified by the Army, was not.
Just how much was that redesignation of Wendell Wood’s land to “Growth Area” in the NGIC deal worth? Who knows?! The government ain’t talkin’.
I asked Dillard Horton of the Army Corps of Engineers, the man who had negotiated the deal with the developer, for the appraisal value and he had declined. Wood himself elicited a few more details, claiming that the actual appraisal was more than double the sale price. He would not give me a specific figure. How did he know then? Someone from NGIC had told him. Yet, key players didn’t know, namely the public, and, most importantly, the county’s Board of Supervisors who made the decision to redraw the growth lines for the developer.
So I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the appraisal amount, sending it to the attention of Horton. Enacted into the U.S. Code in 1966, the Act provides that any person has the right to request access to federal agency records or information. Two days later, on February 28, a response came from an Army Corps paralegal letting me know they had received my request, and that they would reply within 20 business days. “We anticipate responding to your request no later than March 27, 2007,” the e-mail promised.
On April 13, I followed up, asking when I could expect a response and three days later, I heard back. “Mr. Whitehead, I apologize for not replying sooner to your request,” the paralegal began. “A formal letter is being prepared to respond to your request. The final purchase price of the property is releasable but the appraisal is not releasable under Exemption 4. The release of this information could cause financial harm by affecting our ability and the owner’s ability to negotiate in the future.”
A few days later, a letter arrived in the mail once more denying me the appraisal amount, again claiming an exemption under FOIA 5 U.S.C. 552 (b) (4): “This section does not apply to matters…that are trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.” The letter closed with a standard option. I had 60 days to respond.
So I contacted my attorney, my dad, John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. I showed him the letter and he agreed to put someone on it. First, he had a warning that I fear will be prophetic: “It’s all a very slow process, because you’re dealing with the government.”
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