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Courthouse construction shifts towards Riversedge

WINTON – Despite an 11th hour plea from Winton citizens, it appears the new Hertford County Courthouse will not be built within this historic town.

However, all is not lost for Winton.

In a 5-0 vote, the Hertford County Board of Commissioners, meeting Thursday in a workshop to discuss the courthouse construction site, opted to accept an offer of 25 acres of free land from Riversedge LLP. They seemed to favor the Riversedge property from the standpoint that it is only one mile from Winton’s town limits, meaning the county seat will not have to change locations.

The wording of the approved motion also places the Riversedge property at the top of the list. A portion of it makes reference to a reversionary clause…..“the title to the land will revert to the Grantor if the County has not begun construction of a courthouse on the site within one year.”

Currently, the commissioners have an option to purchase 25 areas of land from Percy Bunch of Murfreesboro. That option remains valid, to include a price tag of $7,500 per acre, and, if exercised, the county seat would be moved from Winton toMurfreesboro.

“We’d much rather have the courthouse in town after it’s been here for 250 years,” said Winton native and current Town Commissioner Emily Winstead who attended Thursday’s workshop. “We’re losing our history and it breaks our heart. If Riversedge is the best we can do, then that’s better than moving the courthouse and county seat toMurfreesboroor Ahoskie.

“I would prefer for the county seat remain where it’s at,” said Winton Town Commissioner McCoy Pierce, also seated in the audience at the workshop. “If the courthouse goes to Riversedge, the town will help you with the sewer. We’re all here as one.”

“There are other properties around the county complex that can be used (for expansion),” said another workshop attendee, Winton resident Karen Rowe. “There are great opportunities here, ones that will help to keep the quaintness of this beautiful small town.”

At their regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, Commissioner Johnnie Ray Farmer introduced a plan that would build the new courthouse between the existing facility and the Sheriff’s Office. On Thursday Farmer stressed once again that he wanted to see all possibilities of construction areas within Winton exhausted before the board moved the new courthouse out of town.

CountyManagerLoria Williams provided board members with information from its engineer, Pete Cayado, regarding that Winton possible site. According to Cayado, there would be significant costs to the county to have all public utilities – sewer and water lines; telephone and data cables (some with their exact location in doubt) and manhole covers – relocated.

Cayado was also concerned about the timing of the reconnection of those utilities to a sheriff’s office that operates 24-7.

“There are ways to build new buildings here on our county campus in Winton, but there are offsetting costs to the demolition of existing facilities and relocating the employees in those existing facilities,” Williams noted.

She also stressed that building the new courthouse in front of the Sheriff’s Office would require some changes in the current architectural design.

“We already have considerable money invested in design right now to the tune of over $400,000; we want to maintain that, not lose that,” Williams said.

There was also a design “build out” to place the new courthouse, along with the county’s proposed new 9-1-1DispatchCenter, behind the current Probation and Parole Office (in a county-owned lot now used for the Health Department’s office).

“That would be an issue; what do we do about relocating the health department,” Williams asked.

“Everybody is talking about how we are using taxpayer’s money on the courthouse; each of these various on campus building ideas come with added costs to our taxpayers,” Commissioner Ronald Gatling stated.

Commissioner Bill Mitchell spoke about the growth he has seen in his office (Probation and Parole) since 1989. He cited recent new state regulations regarding the Justice Reinvestment Act that works with criminal offenders in an effort to keep them out of prison.

“North Carolinais trying to save money by not investing billions into building new prisons,” Mitchell said. “Rather, they want to invest more money into Probation and Parole, meaning local offices will grow, meaning we’ll need more space. We can meet our growth needs by not building a new courthouse in an area where there is no space to expand.”

Mitchell went on to say he’s heard the plea from some county citizens to not invest in a new courthouse, but rather to remodel the current facility.

“If we do that we’ll have the same square footage we have right now, there’ll be no room to grow,” he noted. “Twenty five acres of land gives us room to grow.”

“I agree,” said Commissioner Howard Hunter III. “We have no opportunities to spread our wings and grow here in Winton. We’ve been offered a gracious gift from the Riversedge partners that gives us the room to grow. We don’t have to move the county seat by moving to Riversedge.”

“What we’re doing is not personal to me; it’s about the wants and needs of all citizens ofHertfordCounty,” Farmer stressed. “We need a new courthouse. The one we have now is in bad shape. It’s an eyesore.”

“We’re holding this workshop to look at all options on the table,” Commission Chairman Curtis Freeman said. “We all know that our current courthouse is in bad condition and we all know we need a new one. That’s why we’re here today to pick a location.”

“As long as there has been a property on the table in regards to Winton, I have been in full support of it,” Mitchell stated. “When Winton came off the table was when we decided to look at the Bunch property. Now we have a Winton property back on. In light of the county’s short and long term needs in regards to a 9-1-1 center and anticipated future growth, I feel it’s in the county’s best interest to acquire additional property. Recent developments, namely the proposal by the Riversedge group, affords the county the opportunity to satisfy both short and long term needs and keeps the county seat intact.”

Mitchell then asked county attorney Charles “Chuck” Revelle to assist him in the proper wording of a motion to accept the 25 acres from the Riversedge group.

That motion was developed to address issues concerning connection to Winton’s sewer system and leaving the property out of the town’s extraterritorial zoning jurisdiction. Additional contingencies include the typical “due diligence” performed on the property – environmental studies, to include soil tests, and a title search to ensure the property is free and clear of any legal entanglements.

Prior to a vote on Mitchell’s motion, Gatling said he wanted to be clear concerning any costs the county would incur in connecting the Riversedge property to Winton sewer lines.

Williams said that cost was estimated at $60,000 and would include all piping and a quad pump station capable of handling 100,000 square feet of occupied office space.

“We need to leave out of here today with a final decision on what direction we’re taking,” Farmer stressed.

“You really can’t say you’re making a final decision today until the due diligence is done,” Revelle cautioned the board. “What you’re doing is trying to set parameters on this property. If it’s determined that this property is not suitable then you convey it back (to Riversedge). It’s not a final decision until all the specifics are satisfied, including DOT’s plan to widen US 158 near this site.”

“What I mean is we’re intending to build at Riversedge,” said Farmer in clarifying his statement.

Revelle suggested that the commissioners not do anything different with the Bunch property at this time.

Williams noted that the Riversedge property gives the county the room to not only build the new courthouse, but the proposed 9-1-1 Center as well. There is also room there if the board decided to move all county government offices now in the main administrative building – tax office, land records, tax assessor, county manager, finance office and economic development – to outparcels adjacent to the new courthouse at Riversedge. That move will allow Hertford County DSS to use all the space in the administrative building, to include moving the Ahoskie DSS office staff back to Winton.

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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