‘Hatch’ing a plan
Published 6:57 pm Wednesday, January 15, 2014
GATESVILLE – Armed with promises that spot zoning is not an issue as well as filling a need for senior citizen housing, the Gates County Board of Commissioners approved a pair of rezoning requests here last week, allowing the Sunbury Fields project to move forward.
Sunbury Fields is the old Sunbury School purchased in December of 2011 by Graham Hatch and his wife, Brenda, of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The deed to the school and its outbuildings, including the gymnasium, were first transferred to Preservation North Carolina and then sold to Hatchs for $50,000.
Following a public hearing that took the better part of three hours, the commissioners rezoned the school property, except for the old gym, from R-1 to RMF-72 (Residential Multi-Family). The gym was rezoned from R-1 to C-1 (commercial). The commercial status was needed there due to the possibility of that facility being partly used as a café or coffee shop.
“This is a big investment by the owners,” said Commission Chairman Henry Jordan. “We’ve heard how they will maintain the property upon completion of the project. “We’ve heard about how this project is not spot zoning. It follows the county’s CAMALand Use Plan. We, the commissioners, are charged by that plan to do all we can to preserve and enhance our cultural and historic properties.”
The other Commissioners agreed.
“We looked at the book, the rules, the regulations….can this be done, can this be rezoned, yes…by the book,” Commission Vice Chair Jack Owens said. “This is housing we need for our aging population and we want what’s best for our county.”
“It’s going to be a challenge to bring this school back up to where it needs to be, but I feel it’s a challenge worth taking,” said Commissioner Kenneth Jernigan.
Commissioner Linda Hofler said she based her opinion of the project on facts, did her homework, and came to the conclusion that this facility is needed in Gates County.
After receiving confirmation that the requested rezoning is not spot zoning, Commissioner Billy Felton gave his support to the project.
At the outset of the public hearing, Slade Rand, legal counsel for the Hatchs, said the rezoning does not, in his legal opinion, constitute spot zoning. Rand, whose law firm lists the City of Wilson among its clients, said he is extremely familiar with the state’s zoning laws. He pointed out on a Gates County zoning map of commercial properties located in the same area of Sunbury School (currently in a Residential 1 district).
“You don’t have many options to redevelop this school,” Rand pointed out. “If it’s worth something to you, and not just sentimental worth, but rather from an economic standpoint, I think it would be wise to grant this request. And I think that the neighbors who are objecting now might find out down the road that most of their concerns will not come to fruition.”
Mr. Hatch said he felt quality, senior citizen housing is very much needed in Gates County, mostly due to substandard dwellings in the county.
“Fifty percent, more than the state and national average, of the population here is (age) 65-plus and that’s growing,” he said. “Thirty-two percent of the housing here was built before 1970 and 36 percent of the rental property here is mobile homes.”
Hatch said the project was a “historic adaptive reuse” of the school, providing one bedrooms (estimated between 45-48 units) for seniors in a safe, high quality living environment while further enhancing local economic development. That project is currently estimated as low as $4.5 million to as high as $7.1 million. Funds will be generated by state and federal tax credits (no government grants), and development and construction loans. The facility, no matter the ownership, must remain as a senior citizen housing facility for at least 30 years.
He added that the key requirement is that the housing will be under the auspices of a “qualified property management firm” and that the gym could serve many purposes, to include a Senior Center.
“We can’t change what’s happened here in the past; what we want now is what’s best for this historic school and the community,” he concluded.
This type of project, finding a new use for an old school, isn’t new to the local area. It’s been done in Edenton as well as by Choanoke Area Development Association (CADA) in Woodland, Ahoskie and Enfield.
Sallie Surface, CADA Executive Director, sang the praises of the three old schools her organization transformed into much-needed senior citizen housing. Like Sunbury, the old schools in Woodland, Ahoskie and Enfield were almost lost to total deterioration. She said that the project also generates money for the county in building permits fees and, later when occupied, property taxes.
Bobby Eure, who works at the Ahoskie High School Senior Apartments, said that facility was safe, secure and there is no problem with crime.
Gates County DSS Director Geoff Marett encouraged the commissioners to rezone, calling it “a great need for the county for our senior citizens by keeping them at home and not having to go outside the county to find adequate housing in the latter stages of their lives.”
“This is a quality of life they want, that they desire. The only housing we can recommend is outside the county. That’s not what they want. Please consider the good points of this rezoning request,” Marett said.
Gary Casper said he has a vested interest in this issue, owning a house across the street from SunburySchool. He stated that the old school has “just sat there over the years with no dollars used for repairs.”
He said his house carries a tax value in excess of $231,000 and is “across the road from property you sold for $55,000 and you threw in the septic system and the gym.”
“What a great deal….while I keep paying taxes on my property every year while you let the (school) property run down,” Casper added. “I’m not hugging this project; I don’t like it.”
Earl Rountree, who said he wanted to see the old school saved, questioned the Hatchs’ revitalization efforts they touted having completed in Argentina, saying he had been “burned in the past” when he purchased shares, sight unseen, in an Arizona gold mine.
“All I want to do is fly down there (Argentina) and verify it,” Rountree remarked.
Former Gates County Schools Superintendent Dr. Cleveland Hawkins said Sunbury School, “wouldn’t stand much longer” and would be very expensive to demolish.
“Time is not on our side….something has to be done; it’s an eyesore,” Hawkins noted. “I hope the commissioners will act with thoughtful and prudent speed and support the current owners to resurrect this building.”
John Crocker of Sunbury encouraged the commissioners to ensure that the rezoning is not spot zoning. He also asked for the board to have a development plan in hand from the Hatchs before moving forward.
Retired firefighter Robert A. Parker cited the size of the old school and the material used years ago for construction. He was concerned if a fire occurred there, was there enough water to extinguish.
Phyllis Hobbs, a member of the county’s Planning Board, said she voted “no” when the issue came before her group, based on the information they were given and the “broadness of the ordinance.”
“Afterwards, I met with Brenda and Graham Hatch and got a better understanding of what they want to do with the old school,” Hobbs said. “I can see their vision. I did some checking on crime rates and problems at similar housing in Edenton and Ahoskie. I called the police departments there, and it came up zilch….no problems. Plus the Ahoskie Housing Authority runs background checks on those wanting to live in those apartments. If anything shows up criminally, those applications are denied. All this, plus talking to the Hatchs, made me feel a lot better.”
Susan Ward of Sunbury said questioning this issue is good.
“We want this done right; that school means a lot to us,” Ward said. “I admire the Hatchs coming here and trying to do something. I say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I see good things coming out of Sunbury School and I feel everyone will be pleased with what they see.”
Beginning in earnest in 2010, the Gates County Board of Commissioners has searched for a buyer of the school, which is rapidly deteriorating due to years of neglect. They turned to Preservation North Carolina to market the school and other buildings on the 6.74-acre property, to include the gym, the old Woman’s Club building and a residence, now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Hatch, once used as a church parsonage.
The Hatchs purchased the property on Dec. 5, 2011. The couple has a past history in renovating old buildings, particularly the Los Patios De Montserrat, a hotel housed in a 19th-century building situated in the center of Buenos Aires. The hotel features spacious guest rooms with high ceilings and original wooden floors.