Published 11:30 am Wednesday, September 14, 2011
WINTON – No.
That was the simple response to a complex issue here Monday night when the Winton Town Commissioners denied a parking variance submitted by Hertford County officials. The request related to the county’s plans to meet Winton’s requirement of providing at least 65 parking spots during construction of the new courthouse.
Throughout the process leading up to the start of that construction, Town of Winton officials have expressed concern over how the county would provide adequate parking. The major concern has been the loss of the county’s largest parking area, the site chosen for the new facility.
The county commissioners, at their Aug. 1 meeting, adopted a resolution of intent to provide 75 parking spots at the site of the old courthouse, which will be demolished when the new facility opens. However, that is not scheduled to occur until January, 2014. In the meantime, county officials were looking at purchasing private property near the courthouse area in an effort to increase parking. They have since withdrawn those offers.
Additionally, the county commissioners are studying options to move the new courthouse to another location. Town officials in Murfreesboro and Ahoskie have sent formal letters to the county commissioners in an effort to lure the courthouse to their respective municipalities.
Monday night’s debate between Winton officials and representatives from the county – County Manager Loria Williams, Commission Chairman Johnnie Ray Farmer and Commissioner Bill Mitchell – centered on the parking issue. There was also a variance request on the table from the county for the town to grant a setback variance on the courthouse construction.
There have been several delays in conducting a public hearing on the county’s request to reduce the setback variance as well as one concerning the parking issue. That public hearing finally took place on Aug. 1, when the Winton Commissioners, acting as the Board of Adjustments, denied both requests.
That prompted the county to ask for another public hearing, which occurred Monday night, one that included a modified temporary parking plan. Town officials asked for a scaled drawing of that parking plan for review prior to the public hearing. They were also under the impression that the county was asking for a waiver of the parking issue until the old courthouse could be demolished.
“Keep in mind that the Town of Winton is not requiring Hertford County to have the 65 spaces, as required by law, on site at the courthouse, but off site,” veteran Winton Town Commissioner Wesley Liverman said. “Maybe when Mr. (Johnnie Ray) Farmer drives into his reserved parking place just steps away from the rear door of the county office building it eliminates a parking problem for him, but not other citizens.”
He added, “Four of the handicapped parking places in that same area are covered with ‘Commissioner Only’ parking signs, reassuring all commissioners they have a place to park just steps away from the rear door of the office building. Therefore I assume that all Hertford County Commissioners think they are no parking problems.”
At the opening of the public hearing, Winton resident Bob Rowe remarked, “In a recent project I was involved in within the county I had to meet all the requirements. They would not allow any variances. I had to abide by their rules and regulations. As a citizen, I feel that the county should be held to the same standards that we are.”
Chuck Revelle, an attorney representing Hertford County, presented the request for the setback variance. He said the county made an attempt to obtain the Wesley Stewart property (to address the parking concerns), making an offer of $30,000, but did not receive a counteroffer.
“The county has withdrawn its intent to acquire that property and the request for that variance is off the table,” Revelle said. “All of the parking that’s being asked for is currently on county property.”
Revelle continued, “It’s your job to decide whether our request is reasonable and in the best interest of your town. The county commissioners have the responsibility to study alternatives and they have done so and will continue to do so regardless of the decision made here tonight.”
Winton Commissioner Charles Jones said he had heard from two county officials – naming EDC Director Bill Early and identifying the other as a county commissioner – saying that the county had already made up their minds to move the new courthouse construction out of Winton. He added the county commissioner told him of a dream to build a new jail, also outside of Winton.
“That disturbs me,” Jones said. “Are we the scapegoat of the county? If that’s your vision, then that’s fine, just don’t throw us under the bus.”
Jones said his vision was simple: “Just buy a lot so you can provide adequate parking, especially for the disabled, the handicapped and the elderly. They need to be served during the construction.”
To further illustrate his concern about the lack of parking, Liverman pointed to recent sessions of Hertford County Superior Court and District Court conducted on identical days. He said the Superior Courtroom had 253 defendants and 108 jurors plus witnesses and “tag-alongs.” In District Court there were 110 defendants.
“You are talking about four different parking lots that are currently used,” Liverman said. “We took pictures this past Tuesday and did counts on the lots and people are parking every different which away.”
Those photos, viewed closely by the News-Herald following the meeting, showed vehicles parked in numerous places, some illegally, including one in the grass median of a Winton street and others in private driveways. County vehicles were parked near the front door of the Winton Community Building.
Williams said the county was receiving bids to pave the gravel parking lot adjacent to the county administration building. That lot will be laid off with 10’ x 20’ parking places, as is the code for the town. The county may also pave the lot near the Probation and Parole office.
“There are other properties you can look at to purchase to help alleviate a lot of these parking problems,” Liverman said, adding there was one town citizen at the meeting who may be willing to strike a deal. “I hate to see the courthouse moved, but I feel ya’ll haven’t given us the right effort to make this thing work. You can spend $100,000 extra to give to Hertford County Schools; you can give the community college an extra $25,000, but you can’t buy a piece of property adjoining your property to make this project work. That doesn’t sit well with me.”
Liverman suggested that the county require its employees to park in the Probation and Parole lot and make them walk the two blocks to work, thus freeing up parking places near the courthouse and county offices for the public.
“I haven’t seen any of that in your plans,” Liverman said. “I feel like ya’ll have already made up your minds to move it (new courthouse).”
“As one of your commissioners said last week, ‘Whoever gives us the best deal that’s where we’re going’,” Jones said. “We don’t have any money to make you a deal.”
“I don’t think find anybody who has cooperated with you more and bent over backwards to help you over the years than the town of Winton to help you make progress and help benefit the entire county,” Liverman stressed. “All we’re asking is that you resolve the parking problem and I don’t think you’ve been fair with us.”
“Two of your (town) commissioners have raised the issue of the county moving elsewhere. The county has made no such decision,” Revelle answered. “The county was not looking at any other decision until issues became obvious with the town of Winton.”
“Didn’t the county vote at their last meeting not to proceed on acquiring the Reed or Stewart property,” Liverman asked.
“That is correct,” Revelle said. “You have the plan that the county is proposing.”
“We did that (withdraw purchase plans) because we felt like we could provide the parking requirements you gave us without having to purchase that property,” Farmer said.
“Your idea of moving the courthouse to another location makes no fiscal sense,” Winton town resident David Reed said. “The long-term hidden costs would be enormous, such as accommodating support staff at another location, the cost of fuel, maintenance and manpower to transport prisoners.
“No one from the county has contacted me about negotiating (to purchase property),” Reed continued. “The county has sent an enormous amount of money to avoid the wishes of this council, money that could have been well spent to improve or acquire property to accommodate this council’s request.”
“Communication, a failure to communicate, is the main problem in all governmental situations,” Winton Commissioner Ernest Green said. “If we could just come together on this things would be a whole lot better for all of us, the citizens of this town and the citizens of this county. Let’s work something out.”
“It’s very embarrassing to walk out (in the public) and hear all the comments about moving the courthouse,” Winton Commissioner McCoy Pierce said. “We need to sit down and listen to each side and work this out. If there aren’t enough parking spaces, we need to work it out.”
“Keep in mind that we’re bending our own town code in asking for 65 spaces,” Jones said. “Normally we required onsite parking; these 65 spaces will be allowed offsite. Again I must point out that even with these spaces we’re allowing offsite the county has yet to show me where handicapped parking will be. I don’t want to see a person using a walker having to walk from Bill Mitchell’s office (Probation and Parole) to the courthouse.”
“It seems to me that the hold-up now between Winton and Hertford County is the number of spaces provided and not necessarily where they’re provided,” said Rowe. “I completely understand that the town wants them as close to the courthouse as possible, but in Charlotte or Raleigh you have to walk two blocks or more to get where you need to be.”
“Even if you pave these lots and lay them out with marked spaces you still don’t have enough spots to handle parking, especially on days when court is in session,” Jones noted. “That’s all we’re asking for…provide the necessary spaces.”
Williams said she felt comfortable with what the county was offering in the way of providing Winton’s mandated 65 parking spots.
“Are you suggesting 65 new parking spaces that are not being currently utilized for parking,” asked Buddy Jones, legal counsel to the Town of Winton.
“What I’m seeing is that not all of the 65 places are currently used, but some are filled on a daily basis,” observed Commissioner Jones. “Some of these new places you’re suggesting are just not there as they are currently being used.”
Rowe suggested the town consider relaxing its 10’ x 20’ size of a parking place during the construction process and then enforce it when the courthouse is completed.
“On a temporary basis you can do what you want to do,” Buddy Jones said. “If this board approves the variance for parking and after you get into this project you realize you were a little ambitious with your thoughts of how much parking you were providing during the construction phase, do you have any idea of what the response would be from the county commissioners at that point.”
“The commissioners would do what they have to do to meet the parking requirements,” Farmer answered. “As I was quoted as saying earlier, it has never been brought to my attention that parking was a problem around the government center until this issue came up. What I’m hearing you say now is we have a parking issue, period, and as we build a new courthouse it expands that problem.”
“Make it mandatory that county employees park behind Probation and Parole and make them walk. That would really break some hearts,” Liverman said.
Revelle said the town could grant the (parking) variance contingent on requiring county employees to park behind the Probation and Parole Office.
“Perhaps that would bring some closure to this issue if that would be satisfactory to the town,” Revelle said.
Once out of public hearing, Liverman motioned for approval of the setback variance for the courthouse (reducing that town code from 40’ to 20’), which passed without objection.
Liverman then asked attorney Jones if the town could approve the parking variance contingent upon the county officials coming back with a plan meeting the town’s approval for parking.
“I think we need to state what it would be that meets your approval,” Buddy Jones replied. “To utilize the variance the county would have to accept it, making it mandatory that county employees park behind Probation and Parole, especially on court days.”
“Where will we be at enforcing it down the road when they don’t park there,” Liverman inquired.
“I guess you could issue citations for improper parking,” attorney Jones suggested.
“It is clearly the county’s intent to meet the permanent parking requirements. What we’re talking about here is a temporary provision,” Williams said. “We’ll do everything we can with signage and to strongly urge the county employees to park elsewhere to free up spaces for the public during this time of construction.”
“Yes, I understand, but you’re talking about two years of temporary,” Liverman remarked.
“Two years of construction time (completion is scheduled for January, 2014) is the worst case scenario. We gave ourselves adequate time,” Williams said. “We don’t want to promise you all something we can’t deliver.”
“I feel we can work with this if the county will pave these lots and line them off for parking,” Commissioner Jones said.
“I don’t feel that the county is going to pave and mark all these spots,” Liverman noted. “We stressed to them to buy the David Reed property. That would add a whole lot of parking spaces. If they got that and paved the lot next to the county office building it wouldn’t jam up things so bad.”
“I address this question to the two county commissioners here. If this board grants the parking variance and things don’t work out, can you make a representation that you will do what it takes to alleviate the problem,” asked attorney Jones.
“Yes,” answered Farmer.
“By acquiring property if necessary,” attorney Jones inquired.
“Yes, if necessary,” Farmer said.
“Who decides if there is a problem and the extent of the problem,” asked Revelle. “Someone has to make that determination. With all due respect, some of this is a town of Winton enforcement issue for people that are parked illegally.”
With that, Liverman motioned for the town to deny the parking variance, which was approved without objection.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Liverman was asked by the News-Herald if he would be satisfied if the county purchased the Reed property for use as additional parking.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” Liverman said. “They’ve got options that will make things work and they are not costly options. They’re not putting their best foot forward. They may have aggravated me, but I’m doing what I feel is right. They need to do what’s right.”
Commissioner Jones also addressed the long-term costs if the courthouse is moved.
“The county’s Land Records and Tax Office workers have to use the Register of Deeds Office on a regular basis to verify things; so does DSS…look at the loss of down time if those employees have to travel back and forth to a courthouse located outside of Winton,” he stated.
“If you move the courthouse you’ll also have new fees for engineering, the architect, and a surveyor, not to mention the cost of transporting prisoners from the jail for court appearances. Look at that burden, that cost, to the taxpayers.”