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Ordinance change pending

GATESVILLE – A proposed change in a county ordinance may place some pressure on the current owners of the historic Sunbury School to reveal the plans they have for the facility.

At the April 3 meeting of the Gates County Board of Commissioners, County Manager Natalie Rountree acknowledged an issue brought forward by Edgar Mitchell, the county’s Building Inspector, regarding an existing county ordinance that addresses property such as Sunbury School.

The old schoolhouse – which traces its history as far back as the early 1900’s – was purchased on Dec. 5, 2011 by Graham Hatch and his wife, Brenda, of Buenos Aires, Argentina under the business name of Sunbury Fields. A stipulation in the purchase agreement stated that Sunbury Fields is to present a plan within 10 years of the purchase, which will “retain and preserve the historic character of the property.”

Mitchell’s concerns were addressed by Gatesville attorney Pitt Godwin, who serves as legal counsel to Gates County local government.

“Edgar had contacted me in regards to our ordinance as it currently reads, particularly as to Sunbury School is one of the problems we’re having,” Godwin told the Commissioners at their April 3 meeting. “My understanding when Sunbury School was purchased that there was a timeframe in which they (new owners) were supposed to have done some things in the way of repair or to make something other than putting up plywood. To my understanding, that’s the only thing that’s happened.”

The question, Godwin continued, centers on the county’s current ordinance does not directly address a place of historic prominence that’s not on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s been eight years since the county sold this property,” Godwin noted. “The question becomes (Gates County Land Usage Ordinance) 153.076 where it says this section requires a new owner to have plans in place within 10 years that maintain, restore a historic landmark to prevent it becoming a danger to the health and welfare of the citizens.”

Godwin added that the county’s Building Inspections Office has been to Sunbury School several times in regards to complaints from Sunbury citizens who allege nothing is happening to restore the old facility.

“The real question is if we (the county) have the right to inquire of the owners of what their plans are,” Godwin asked. “They have not presented any plans; they have not shown they have purchased any materials, that they’ve not done anything.”

Citing again from the county’s Land Usage Ordinance, Godwin pointed out that it also states the Board of Commissioners reserve the right to revoke and/or disallow any waivers to this exemption if the requirements are not complied with or if deception is detected, in the judgment of the County Board of Commissioners, to avoid compliance.

That ordinance was changed and approved on Nov. 21, 2011.

“It’s been eight years, so they have two more years (according to the wording of the ordinance) to reveal their plans,” Godwin said. “I’m really wondering if they ever really intended to do what they said they were going to do when they purchased this property.

“That needs to be addressed,” he continued. “I don’t see anything wrong with us writing a letter to the owners to find out what their plans are. I think Edgar’s position is that it (the property/building) is becoming a danger to the public.”

Godwin then posed the biggest question regarding this particular issue.

“Do we feel like we’ve been deceived by the purchasers; do they really have intentions to make this into a senior resident living facility,” Godwin inquired. “It’s my opinion that a letter needs to be sent.”

Rountree said the owners did respond with an update of their plans following a story published last October in the Gates County Index.

“They explained why things had not been done at that point in time,” Rountree stated. “What Edgar brought to me is what the county ordinance says is not the same as to what the state ordinance means. The (state) General Statute supercedes what the county has. None of the historic properties can be exempted from the state ordinance.”

The county’s ordinance regarding that reads, “Public or county owned structures which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and/or the state’s Historic Preservation Office shall be exempt from this subchapter. Private sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places and/or the state’s Historic Preservation Office shall be exempt from this subchapter for a period of 10 years from the date of sale.”

“When that county ordinance was written it states, in this case, that Sunbury School is exempt from that section; exempt from condemnation,” Mitchell observed. “That one paragraph now in question was added to the ordinance, when it was written, and it’s a discrepancy to the (state) statute.”

Godwin agreed, saying the county’s ordinance is in direct conflict of the state statutes.

“I wrote that ordinance originally and showed it to Pitt to make sure it complied with the state statutes,” said Mitchell. “That paragraph was added without my knowledge. I was never given a copy (of the revised ordinance).”

Board Chairwoman Linda Hofler asked Godwin if he was suggesting the removal of the county ordinance in question.

“Correct,” answered Godwin. “Put it back the way Edgar originally wrote it, before it was changed in 2011. In my opinion it was changed to accommodate the sale of Sunbury School.”

“We always need to comply with our state statues,” stressed Commissioner Ray Freeman.

Rountree reminded the board they first had to conduct a public hearing prior to any changes made in any county ordinance.

A motion was made and approved to hold a public hearing, which is scheduled for the board’s next meeting – 10 a.m. on Wednesday, May 1 at the county courthouse.

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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