Courthouse move carries legal notice requirement

Published 9:35 am Wednesday, January 4, 2012

WINTON – Until further notice it is business as usual here within the seat of government for the County of Hertford.

Even though the county commissioners voted on Tuesday to build the new courthouse near Murfreesboro, the actual move to that new facility remains at least 24 months out.

Just moments after the commissioners selected the Percy Bunch property as the site of the new courthouse, attorney Chuck Revelle, legal counsel to that governing body, reminded the board of his earlier findings in regard to the legality of moving the location of a courthouse.

“There was a question at the outset of how to move a county seat,” Revelle said at the close of Tuesday’s meeting. “It would be my recommendation not to publish any type of notice until there is a formal contract (for land purchase from Bunch) that has been entered and approved by the board. From a procedural standpoint, that still has to be done. That will be done down the road…..publishing the formal notice for four weeks in the newspaper to make county citizens aware that the courthouse is moving to Murfreesboro.”

For the time being, Revelle said the county seat is still in Winton and will remain here until the new courthouse opens.

At the outset of exploring options of where to build the new courthouse, county officials were concerned that relocating a county seat of local government would be buried beneath a mountain of red tape.

Back in August, Revelle was asked by the commissioners to explore the legal ramifications of relocating the courthouse outside of Winton, the seat of Hertford County local government since 1766.

Revelle placed a phone call to the North Carolina School of Government and was told 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.

“Historically the county seat is the seat of Superior Court for the county,” Revelle said in August. “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.

Revelle did note one North Carolina General Statute (GS 153A-169) which he said, “clearly specifies that the Board of Commissioners may designate or redesignate the location of any county department, office, agency or building, including the courthouse.”

“The only limitation on the commissioners’ discretion is a requirement that before redesignating the site of the courthouse, the board must publish a notice of its intent to do so at least four weeks before the redesignation.  That statute was litigated in 1998, and the N.C. Supreme Court upheld the power or right of the Board of Commissioners to designate and redesignate the site of any county building, including the courthouse,” Revelle stated.

Thusly, no special action is required by the North Carolina General Assembly.

“This statute controls this designation or redesignation; no legislative action is necessary,” Revelle said.

The issue of possibly relocating the county seat and/or finding a new site for the construction of the courthouse came about following a closed session of the commissioners at their regularly scheduled meeting on Aug. 15. Johnnie Ray Farmer, then the chairman of the board, told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald that the board was becoming frustrated 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.

At a meeting in September, the Winton Town Commissioners approved the county’s request for the street setback variance, but voted down the parking variance. The latter judgment appeared to spark the county commissioners to seriously consider moving the courthouse, eventually leading to Tuesday’s decision to site the new facility near Murfreesboro.

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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