County Seat to move?

Published 9:30 am Thursday, August 18, 2011

WINTON – Soon after its incorporation in 1766, the town of Winton became the seat of Hertford County local government.

Now, nearly 250 years later, there is discussion among the county’s elected leaders to pull up its Winton roots and move elsewhere.

Following a closed session at their Monday night meeting, the Hertford County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a motion that authorizes the county manager to explore moving the seat of government to Ahoskie and/or relocating the site of the new county courthouse, a $7.1 million facility scheduled for completion in 2013.

Speaking on behalf of the board, Commission Chairman Johnnie Ray Farmer said Monday night’s discussion after the closed session was laced with the board’s frustration with Town of Winton officials regarding several issues with the courthouse project. Farmer stated those issues involved the county seeking a variance on the town’s street setback ordinance for the new courthouse (it will be built on county-owned property in what is now a grass/gravel parking lot on Tryon Street) and how to address vehicle parking once construction begins on that parcel of land.

“We’ve made several attempts to meet the demands of the Town of Winton when it comes to providing ample parking once the courthouse construction process begins,” Farmer said in a Tuesday afternoon interview. “We’ve presented them with our ideas, not once, but twice, and they still aren’t satisfied….they want more parking (spaces).”

Farmer said the consensus of the commissioners was if their latest parking proposal is not satisfactory to town officials, “then perhaps we need to look for another location for the courthouse outside of Winton.”

He said the Monday night discussion went a step further as the commissioners talked about moving the courthouse project to Murfreesboro or Ahoskie.

“What it all boiled down to was if we kept running into roadblocks put up by the town, then we need to look at other options,” Farmer said. “The discussion then took a turn towards if we opted to move the courthouse, what about all county offices.”

Farmer said Commissioner Ronald Gatling made the motion to instruct the County Manager to explore moving the county seat to Ahoskie and/or relocating the site of the new courthouse. The ensuing vote was 4-0 with Commissioner Curtis Freeman absent after having to leave the meeting prior to the closed session.

“I support the motion,” Farmer said. “We’re having a difficult time meeting the Town of Winton’s demands. They want us to find temporary parking during construction. We drew up a plan and they still weren’t satisfied. I personally feel the town is holding our setback variance hostage over the parking issue.”

Farmer said the county has asked town officials to reduce the street setback from the required 40 feet to 20 feet. He noted without the variance, the number of secured parking areas at the new courthouse (reserved for judges and other ranking court officials) would be significantly lowered.

“They refuse to approve our variance until we show them we’ll have enough parking during construction,” Farmer said. “They say we need 65 parking spaces. Apparently we need to show them where we can come up with 65 spaces.

This is the only thing holding us up on the courthouse project. We need to get all our permits in order and put this out for bids. We’re about 90 days behind. This has been ongoing with the town for about three months.”

In a related measure following Monday’s closed session, the Commissioners approved an offer of $30,000 on the Wesley Ray Stewart property, located on the opposite corner of the courthouse construction site. The listed tax value of that property is $19,887. If that offer is not accepted, the board authorized the county attorney to negotiate a land purchase deal with David C. Reed who owns a parcel (tax value of $28,682) that abuts the Stewart property.

At their Aug. 1 meeting, the commissioners approved a resolution of intent that calls for the demolition of the current courthouse and construction of a parking lot (approximately 75 spaces) at that site within six months after the new courthouse opens.

Wesley Liverman, a veteran member of the Winton Town Council, said the entire issue centers around parking.

“There will be a loss of 75 parking spots when the county starts construction on the new courthouse,” Liverman noted. “Where are all those vehicles going to park, especially on court days and moreover on Superior Court days that start off with a jury pool of a hundred and fifty or more people?”

Liverman said the town had already experienced how parking is affected during a county construction project.

“We saw parking issues earlier this year when the county shut down the lot next to the main office building to re-do the roof,” Liverman stated. “Cars that normally parked there were scattered all over the streets, including parking on both sides of one street where parking is only allowed on one side. Some others were parking on private property. The whole thing was a mess and now we’re looking at a two-year nightmare during the courthouse construction if the county doesn’t come up with a plan that adequately addresses the parking needs.

He continued, “The only heartburn we’ve got is the parking. They knew that before they applied for the first variance. They’ve got to show 65 parking places at a minimum for the courthouse. They can get those spaces on the Reed property if that lot is laid out correctly.

“I can’t speak for all the members of the Winton Council, but my feeling is that we’ll approve their variance request if they can show the parking issue is resolved,” Liverman added.

In regards to the possibility of moving the county seat to Ahoskie or building the new courthouse elsewhere in the county, Liverman said, “Let ‘em move, they don’t pay any (property) taxes here anyway.”

As of Wednesday morning, Murfreesboro attorney Chuck Revelle, who serves as legal counsel to the Hertford County Board of Commissioners, said he was unclear on the particulars of moving a county seat.

“There’s not a procedure set forth in the state’s General Statutes for changing a county seat,” Revelle said during a telephone interview on Wednesday. “I’m still in the process of researching the issue.”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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