HC Commissioners keep options open

Published 10:25 am Thursday, October 20, 2011

WINTON – Despite a plea from two town citizens to keep the Hertford County Courthouse in Winton plus a petition bearing in excess of 500 signatures requesting the same consideration, the county’s Board of Commissioners are keeping their options open.

The possibility of moving the courthouse out of Winton has been in the news for months. The issue gained steam in mid-September when Winton government officials denied the county’s request for a variance on the number of parking spaces it plans to have while the new courthouse is being constructed on county-owned land currently used as a parking lot.

Meanwhile, after hearing from the two Winton citizens, Commission Chairman Johnnie Ray Farmer said those concerns are being presented to the wrong public body.

The first to speak was James Cannette, who also presented the petition which contained 532 signatures.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t want the courthouse moved,” Cannette said. “These signatures didn’t just come from citizens of Winton, but from Ahoskie, Murfreesboro and all over the county.”

Cannette, who is employed by the town, said the courthouse has historically been located in Winton and has served the county well, as have the other local government offices that surround the present-day courthouse.

“We will never have the benefits that Murfreesboro and Ahoskie boast about, but the purpose of a courthouse is not to be the star attraction for other businesses,” Cannette said. He added that the new courthouse should not be placed in an industrial park.

“The town of Winton cannot offer you free services to entice you to remain here,” Cannette told the board members, “but the county cannot afford to buy land to relocate the courthouse and build other facilities whenever they need to in the future. The Sheriff’s Office is less than 25 years old and there is talk about building a new one. This is Hertford County, where do you plan to get the money from?”

Cannette also referenced the remarks made by Commission Vice-Chairman Curtis Freeman in an earlier story published in this newspaper. There, Freeman said that the possible relocation of the courthouse was not only tied to the county’s inability to obtain a parking variance from the town, but to look down the road at future growth for other county offices.

“If this is true, then why did the county pay the town $450 for three variance requests if they were not going to build the courthouse in Winton,” Cannette asked. “If the town had approved the parking variance at one of the two public hearings, what would you have done? Why did you spend money on variance requests, engineers, architects, surveyors and other various expenses on a site you were not seriously considering using. Why not just pick a site that meets the requirements you have in mind rather than get the citizens stirred up and start a bidding war between towns.”

Cannette said he thought that Winton officials had made a reasonable request of the county leaders to purchase land to offer alternate parking while the new courthouse was being built.

“All the negative comments and finger pointing in the newspaper are uncalled for,” he added. “That’s not professional and very embarrassing. There is a lot a stake here and it’s unfair that the decision is being handled like an episode of Let’s Make a Deal. I just want to see the right decision made for the people of Hertford County.”

Katherine Carroll also asked the commissioners to keep the new courthouse in Winton. She said keeping it in town, where the courthouse has been located for 245 years, is instrumental to Winton’s economy.

“With a population of only 956 residents, it will be impossible for Winton to continue to thrive (without the courthouse),” she said. “It could very well stymie the continued future and growth if the courthouse is moved to any of the proposed sites in Ahoskie or Murfreesboro.”

Carroll said the Winton Café as well as other businesses in town have enjoyed the patronage of many county employees.

“With the courthouse gone, in my opinion, so too will be the majority of the money generated to the economy of Winton,” she noted.

Carroll added, “The courthouse burned down twice, once in 1830 and once in 1862. It seems to me that if it was important enough to rebuild and keep it here that many years, then surely we’re obligated to continue to honor the history and economic benefits it has. This is Winton, we’re small, we need that money.”

She said there were two properties close to the courthouse that could solve the parking issue on a temporary basis. Carroll suggested that if those property owners were trying to charge too much for that land, then perhaps the county could consider using the imminent domain procedure to purchase either one of those parcels at a reasonable rate.

“To me, that would be a lot cheaper than purchasing property (for the new courthouse) in either Ahoskie or Murfreesboro,” she noted.

Following the remarks of the two Winton residents, Farmer said he knew the town’s citizens were concerned about the future construction of the courthouse.

“However, my biggest concern is that there are a lot of rumors going around the county that are false,” said Farmer. “The first false rumor concerns the jail. The fact is that we just got through a couple of years ago paying for that building. We’re getting ready to spend a quarter million dollars to put a new roof on it. I can look pretty dumb at times, but I’m not dumb enough to spend that kind of money for a new roof and then turn around and build a new jail.”

The board chairman then addressed the variances requested by the county from Winton officials. He said one was a street setback variance, which was granted, due to the “tight squeeze” of placing the new courthouse on such a small lot.

“We are serious about building the courthouse in Winton and have been serious about it for some time,” Farmer said. “We had no thought about building it anywhere else until the town of Winton denied our parking variance for the second time. After that we didn’t go looking elsewhere, rather the mayor of Murfreesboro called me and made a proposal for us to build the new courthouse there. Murfreesboro came to us, followed soon thereafter by the town of Ahoskie.”

From his chair in the board room, Farmer pointed in the direction of the lot across the street where the new courthouse is proposed to be built and said, “Right now the plan is to build it right there. But guess what, you’re talking to the wrong (public) body; you’re upset with the wrong body, the people you need to be upset with is the town board of Winton.

“We started talking to the town of Winton in February and we were expecting to have a (construction) contract in hand this month,” Farmer continued. “Right now we do not have permission from the town of Winton to build the courthouse here. The town of Winton is holding us up. As long as we’re being held up, we’re looking somewhere else.”

Cannette asked to readdress the commissioners, telling them they had the opportunity to purchase land across from the new courthouse to provide temporary parking during the construction process.

“You could use that land later to build another new facility, if needed, after you move the parking lot to where the old courthouse is now,” Cannette said. “But yet you want to go to Ahoskie or Murfreesboro and purchase land to build to build a new courthouse. Both sides need to let their egos go and solve this.”

“I’ll respond to that by saying this,” Farmer said, “I would suggest to you that you have this conversation and deliver a copy of your petition to the Winton Town Commissioners.”

The chairman added that the county had offered 65 new parking spaces and paving one existing lot (for a grand total of 75 spaces) to help offset the loss of the parcel to be used to build the new courthouse, but yet Winton officials turned that plan down.

“If you listen to Mr. Cannette, we’re not doing anything to solve the problem of parking, but we have,” Farmer said. “We’ve got a plan.”

Freeman said he stood behind the comments he made in the newspaper concerning future growth.

“That was because of months and months of going round and round…..whether it’s our fault, Winton’s fault, whoever’s fault,” he stated. “When we could not get the variance for the parking, we have a charge to do what’s right for not just Winton’s citizens, but citizens from the whole county and it behooves us that we have to look down the road. That’s not to say we’re not going to build here in Winton. We’re just looking out for future generations.”

The county commissioners have received several proposals to relocate the courthouse. They are expected to address that issue during a board workshop scheduled for Oct. 25.

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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