This article is the first in a three-part series on the legal battle surrounding the sale of Hofmann Forest.
Ask any North Carolina State University (“NCSU”) student or graduate to describe their school’s campus and one of the first things you will hear about are the bricks. While most other colleges have a grassy “quad” or “commons” for large student gatherings, NCSU has The Brickyard, an acre-sized plaza constructed of approximately 226,200 red and white bricks. At orientation new students are given a book called The Brick, filled with traditions to participate in during their time at the university. Tripping over an unstable brick during a rushed walk to class is practically a requirement for graduation. The ubiquitous bricks are generally unpopular with outsiders, often earning NCSU top placements on numerous “Ugliest Campus” lists.
Due to the university’s love affair with masonry, many people are surprised to learn that NCSU owns a nearly 80,000-acre forest on the Onslow-Jones county line, just north of Jacksonville, North Carolina. Since 1936, students of the school’s College of Natural Resources (“CNR”) have used Hofmann Forest (named after former Forestry Department Director Julius Hofmann) to conduct research on forestry issues including tree growth, water drainage, fire ecology, and much more. Timber from the land also generates revenue for the school, averaging about $2 million per year.
However on January 23, 2013, CNR Dean Mary Watzin announced that Hofmann Forest would be put up for sale. In a letter to CNR alumni, Watzin explained that the sale was necessary in order to diversify CNR’s investment portfolio and to ensure adequate cash flow for its programs. Watzin justified the sale by citing a “low rate of use” by CNR faculty and students, but expressed her hope that a deal could be reached with a prospective buyer that would enable continued access to the property for educational purposes.
By early March 2013, NCSU had received about twenty offers to purchase the property. In October 2013, a deal was approved by the Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund to sell the property to Walker Ag Group, an agriculture company owed by Illinois-based farmer Jerry Walker, for $150 million. The terms of that agreement would allow Walker to use the land for farming or timber harvesting, but would bar development of the property. The deal would also gives Walker the authority to negotiate easement sales with the Department of Defense, which would allowed for continued military aviation training in the area.
The sale has been hotly contested by CNR faculty and alumni, conservationists, and foresters across the state. This opposition ultimately culminated in a lawsuit filed a month before the details of the sale were announced. A year later, NCSU has amended its plans for the sale and the lawsuit is still working its way through the courts.