Courthouse location remains clouded

Published 9:40 am Tuesday, February 7, 2012

WINTON – It’s not a done deal as of just yet.

The discussion over where to build a new county courthouse took yet another turn here Monday morning where the Hertford County Board of Commissioners agreed to study four possible sites.

It was at their Jan. 3 meeting where the board narrowed their list to one site – 25 acres (at $7,500 per acre) near Murfreesboro owned by Percy Bunch. Two weeks later the board entered into an option agreement with Bunch that may lead to the purchase of his land.

Bunch now has company.

By a unanimous vote of the board on Monday, a work shop is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Thursday where the commissioners will discuss three other options – the Stuart Pierce property near Ahoskie, Riversedge near Winton and a parcel of county-owned land within Winton – along with the Bunch offering.

The location within Winton led off Monday’s new round of discussions as Commissioner Johnnie Ray Farmer requested the board exhaust all possibilities of building the new courthouse in Winton before going to the trouble of moving the county seat to Murfreesboro.

“Over the past few weeks we’ve heard the plea of many citizens to keep the county seat in Winton,” Farmer said. “I feel we should not move the county seat just because the town of Winton commissioners have been difficult to deal with.”

Farmer added that due to what he referred to as “the political winds seem to be changing in Winton,” he felt the current make-up of town officials may be easier to deal with.

“I feel we should at least make the attempt to build the courthouse in Winton before moving the county seat,” Farmer stressed.

He said there are two sites in the government center, both currently owned by the county, that may be suitable for construction – an area between the current courthouse and Sheriff’s Office and a vacant lot near the probation and parole office.

The first, he said, has 106,000 square feet available for construction, far more than the 48,000 square feet the county originally look at in the dirt parking lot across Tyron Street from the current courthouse. One key factor in looking at that site is it would require the closing of Taylor Street. There are also concerns of moving electrical, water and sewer lines currently in place along that street, an issue Farmer said engineers would have to address.

The second site has 81,000 square feet available for construction. It would require the demolition of an office (a double wide mobile home) currently used by the Hertford County Public Health Authority.

“The architect’s design for our new courthouse should fit into either one of these two sites,” Farmer noted before making a motion to direct the county manager to have the architect’s engineers investigate the area between the existing courthouse and the sheriff’s office.

During discussion of Farmer’s motion, Commissioner Howard Hunter III inquired of what the county would do with the employees currently housed in the health authority’s “trailer” office.

“That has no bearing on my motion; when we come to that point we would have to figure it out,” Farmer replied.

Commissioner Ronald Gatling referenced a plan developed in 1999 to build a new courthouse between the existing facility and the sheriff’s office. County Manager Loria Williams said she was aware of such a plan, but did not know just how in depth the details were at that time.

“These are very good alternatives made by Commissioner Farmer,” Gatling said. “I would suggest we move this to a work session to discuss this and other issues on the table for the new courthouse. “We need a clear direction on this and look at other possibilities. We have other alternatives, other offers, and this (Winton sites) should be added to it.”

“All I’m asking is to investigate these sites in Winton,” Farmer said. “If we have a work session we can’t talk about this any more until the architect/engineer tells us the feasibility of it.”

Commission Chairman Curtis Freeman, who was on the board in 1999, said he did recall a schematic plan drawn to locate a new courthouse in the area Farmer referred to in his motion, but no in depth research was performed.

“It was just an idea at that time,” Freeman recalled. “At that time we also ran into some problems with Winton about closing the street.”

“I think before we go and spend more money (on an engineer’s investigation), we need get together and hash out which direction we want to go,” Gatling suggested. “We should take our time and go slow in making this decision.”

“I think if we have a workshop we will have a difficult time in making a decision about this particular option without having an expert talk to us about the feasibility of closing that street, moving power lines, water lines and sewer lines to construct the courthouse there,” Farmer stated. “Any discussion without that knowledge would be a waste of time.”

“If we want to have a work session this week it will be difficult in having that information this week,” Hunter said referencing Farmer’s suggestion.

Farmer’s motion died for the lack of a second and the board moved forward from there with scheduling Thursday’s workshop.

“When we get to that workshop we need to have the whole buffet before us, all the sites, including the one Commissioner Farmer spoke about this morning,” Freeman said. “One thing I need to mention here is that we earlier placed an option to purchase the (Percy) Bunch property over in Murfreesboro. Many interpreted that as a done deal. I said at that time that nothing yet is set in stone. We haven’t purchased any property to build the new courthouse as of yet.”

Also at Monday’s meeting, the Riversedge partners – Preston Wood, Al Vaughan and Scott Camp – made their formal offer of 25 acres of free property to the county on which to construct the new courthouse. That property is located just west of Winton on US 158 at its intersection with Parker’s Ferry Road.

The only stipulation with that property is the owners are asking the county to size the sewer line appropriately to allow for possible commercial development in that area. The Riversedge partners would like to tie into that line by way of a manhole access. They would be responsible for all other infrastructure on their property.

Vaughan said the property, located along a major road that will soon be improved to four lanes, would be an attractive location for the county to show off its beautiful new courthouse. He added that he understood the county is also looking to possibly build a new 9-1-1 dispatch center, saying there would be plenty of room to do so on this property.

Camp said he would provide the county all engineering studies performed to date on that property.

Freeman and other board members thanked the Riversedge partners for their generous offer. He added that this property will be added to the work session discussion on Thursday.

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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