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Year’s Top Stories – #6

WINTON — Beginning in mid-August, the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald began following the efforts of the Hertford County Board of Commissioners as they mapped out plans to build a new $7.86 million courthouse. As the issue developed, so did the debate on where to site the new building, originally planned for Winton which has served as the seat of county government for nearly 250 years.

In our Aug. 18 edition, we reported that the commissioners, following a closed session at their Aug. 15 meeting, unanimously approved a motion that authorized the county manager to explore moving the seat of government to Ahoskie and/or relocating the site of the new county courthouse.

Speaking on behalf of the board, Commission Chairman Johnnie Ray Farmer said the 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 was to 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.

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 added that the 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.”

The county did take steps to increase the number of parking spaces, approving an offer of $30,000 on the Wesley Ray Stewart property, located on the opposite corner of the courthouse construction site. That offer was later withdrawn.

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?”

An Aug. 20 story shed light on whether or not the county commissioners were within their legal rights to move the courthouse from the county seat of government.

According to Chuck Revelle, legal counsel to the commissioners, his conversations with the North Carolina School of Government revealed there is not a definition of the term county seat in the N.C. General Statutes and no specified procedure for moving the county seat. He said, historically, the county seat was the seat of Superior Court for the county.

“It is my opinion, after consultation with the attorneys at the N.C. School of Government, that the county seat is therefore wherever the county courthouse is located.  Other county buildings or offices may be located in different places throughout the county,” he noted.

In our Sept. 15 edition (“Parking War: Battle lines are drawn”)

we reported on a Sept. 12 meeting of the Winton Town Commissioners. There, following a lengthy debate between town and county officials, Winton’s governing board approved the county’s request for a street setback variance for the new courthouse, but voted down the county’s plans to provide at least 65 additional parking during the construction process.

“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,” 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.”

Winton Commissioner Charles 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.”

The county’s plan for parking included the paving of the gravel lot adjacent to the county administration building and perhaps paving a lot near the Probation and Parole office.

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.

“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.”

At their Oct. 17 meeting (story reported on Oct. 20), the commissioners heard a plea from two Winton citizens and also received a petition bearing more than 500 signatures asking the board to keep the courthouse construction project in Winton.

“The town of Winton cannot offer you free services to entice you to remain here,” James 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?”

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.”

After publically soliciting information on possible locations to build the new courthouse, the county commissioners, following an Oct. 25 workshop, announced that three sites have emerged as the leading contenders for construction. None are located in or near Winton.

As reported in our Oct. 29 edition, the three sites are:

Percy Bunch tract (25+ acres located near the intersection of US 158 Business and the Murfreesboro Bypass; land is valued at $262,683);

Larry and Nancy Freeman tract (56+ acres located on US 13 north of Ahoskie; land value is $155,283); and

Pierce Beasley & Company, Inc. tract (25 acres located on Community College Road in Union near the old Roanoke-Chowan Mental Health facility; land value is $124,070).

On Nov. 8, we reported that the board, at their meeting one day earlier, added the Riversedge property back to the list of possible construction sites. That property, 70 acres valued at $906,461 located west of Winton, was initially removed from consideration following the board’s Oct. 25 workshop.

Murfreesboro’s bid to land the courthouse took a step forward, as we reported on Nov. 15, as town leaders there adopted a resolution agreeing to construct, at no expense to the county, the necessary sewer and water infrastructure as well as remove the Percy Bunch property from the town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) should the county select that particular parcel for the construction of the new courthouse.

We reported on Nov. 24 that the county commissioners, at their Nov. 21 meeting, dropped from further consideration the Larry and Nancy Freeman tract and the Pierce Beasley & Company, Inc. tract.

That left two possible sites still on the list – the Percy Bunch tract and Riversedge. However, the commissioners added one more – the Stuart Pierce property (Roanoke-Chowan Crossing located near Frazier’s Crossroads on NC 561 west of Ahoskie). The purchase price, which includes connections to Ahoskie’s water and sewer lines, is projected at $490,000.

This storyline for the year 2011 ended with an article on Dec. 6 where the commissioners, at their meeting one day earlier, narrowed the list to two – the Bunch property near Murfreesboro and the Stuart Pierce property west of Ahoskie.

Hertford County Manager Loria Williams said the county will be able to purchase the Bunch property for $190,500 or the Pierce property for $325,000. She added the best offer for the Riversedge property was $400,000.

“It was the board’s intent to narrow the list to two, now we can have a site analysis performed on those two parcels of land to see which is best suited to handle the new courthouse,” Williams said.

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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