Public hearing goes off topic to discuss lake property purchase

Published 8:48 am Wednesday, November 20, 2019

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JACKSON – Even though Lake Gaston wasn’t listed on the agenda of a recent public hearing with the Northampton County Board of Commissioners, the topic was brought up multiple times during the hour-long meeting here Tuesday, Nov. 12.

The focus of the hearing was to discuss the county’s Small Business Loan Program proposal, but conversation often strayed back to concerns about transparency and the county’s recent approval of a contract to purchase land on Edwards Beach Road in Henrico.

As previously reported by the News Herald, the commissioners held a public hearing during their regular meeting on Sept. 16 at Woodland Town Hall to discuss potentially purchasing the land in question on Lake Gaston.

At that hearing, the Board unanimously approved the contract to purchase a six-acre tract of land for $300,000, subject to surveys, and also to move forward with an option to purchase an additional three acres of adjoining land. The proposal for another half-acre tract was tabled to be discussed at a future public hearing which has not yet been scheduled.

As of mid-November, the purchase of the six-acre tract has not yet been finalized while surveys are still being done.

One citizen who spoke during the September hearing asked if the purpose of purchasing the land was the same purpose mentioned on the commissioner’s Strategic Plan released earlier this year. Under recreation goals for 2019, there is one item listed as “Land Option on Lake Gaston for a recreation, wellness and convention center.”

Board Chair Charles Tyner confirmed that was the land’s intended use, though he did not mention any further details or plans at that meeting. He did, however, later mention during the commissioners’ meeting on Nov. 4 that the parcel of land was not intended to be a convention center, but rather a community center similar to the Cultural and Wellness Center in Jackson.

He expanded on those comments last week by saying the land would be used to benefit Northampton County citizens, especially those who live on the western end of the county and can’t travel to Jackson to use their facilities. He also said they intended to form a committee of county residents to be responsible for deciding what any potential community building there would look like.

“We understand that’s the last piece of land at Lake Gaston that can be used for the public,” Tyner continued, mentioning that they’d consulted area realtors to find useable land for public access. “We wanted it to be so Northampton County citizens can go to the water.”

The six-acre tract under contract and the three-acre parcel under option, however, are not waterfront parcels. The half-acre tract, which has not yet been discussed during a public hearing or approved by the Board, is the only waterfront parcel.

At Tuesday’s public hearing, several residents who live near Edwards Beach Road strayed from the topic of the meeting to express their concern that they hadn’t been informed of the September hearing because no information had been sent to their local newspaper, the Lake Gaston Gazette.

One citizen stated she had tried to search for information on the county’s website, but noted minutes from previous board meetings hadn’t been updated since May and she could not find any information about the land in question at Lake Gaston.

“You are not transparent,” she continued. “This information was not shared with the public.”

“I’m giving you everything I know tonight,” replied Tyner, also adding they would make sure information is shared to all county newspapers in the future.

He also reminded the crowd that videos of all county commissioner meetings are posted to their Facebook page.

“You’ll be surprised how many senior citizens in the western part of the county don’t use Facebook,” interjected another member of the audience.

Commissioner Kelvin Edwards, whose district includes Lake Gaston, agreed there should be other sources of information outside of Facebook. He also said they would make sure all three newspapers receive information going forward.

“We represent you. If there’s a conversation that needs to be held, we’ll come meet you,” Edwards added, saying he’d be happy to discuss concerns with citizens anytime.

“We want to be transparent,” Tyner said near the end of the meeting. “I think it’s good you all came tonight and shared with us.”

Earlier in the meeting, Northampton’s Economic Coordinator Franklin Williams took a few minutes to speak as well, echoing some comments made by Tyner.

“What this board decided to do was, once we secured a spot, allow the citizens to act on a committee and allow them to develop the building. I don’t know how much more transparent we can be,” he explained.

“I think what we are experiencing is growing pains,” Williams said of the contentious atmosphere surrounding the discussion. “Before we jump to judgment, let’s try to communicate with one another. Let’s talk to one another. Let’s build a bond and build a relationship with our commissioners.”

“Nobody knows the burden that they carry,” he continued, referring to the Board. “They are $700,000 plus in the red because of decisions that were made prior to them getting here. They did not put us in this mess, but they are gradually getting us out.”

“Nobody’s asking questions and everybody’s making assumptions. Let’s not assume anything. Let’s ask,” Williams concluded.

The News-Herald reached out to Williams for further clarification on his mention of a $700,000 deficit, but calls were not returned by press time of today’s edition.