Marina questions answered

Published 4:40 am Sunday, March 14, 2010

Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This begins a two-part series on The Marina at Moss Landing, located on the Washington waterfront. The series concludes Tuesday.
A Washington Daily News story about a Mooresville developer’s involvement in a downtown-Washington marina project has prompted questions from readers who say they are concerned about the propriety of the waterfront development.
A Daily News investigation determined that complicated legal underpinnings bolster the arrangements allowing the construction of The Marina at Moss Landing on the city’s waterfront.
The investigation also revealed the city went to great lengths to help developers in their efforts to build the marina.
Some aspects of the private development affect public life. Also, the fact that the marina grew out of a public-private partnership has prompted some critics to speculate that political influence has played a hand in the building of the marina.
By contrast, people who are or have been close to the project point out the fact that the marina is structured in a perfectly legal way.
Those sources also point to the monetary benefits the marina could bring to Washington and surrounding areas as more boaters flock to the city’s waterfront.
“People should always be concerned because they’re part of the community,” said Stan Friedman, an investor in the marina. “But there was nothing here that was done in any way that would be underhanded or anything like that. It was all done aboveboard.”
A law professor agreed.
After reviewing a summary of the city’s actions related to the marina, Joseph Kalo, director of the North Carolina Coastal Resources, Law, Planning and Policy Center, said it appeared the developers had every legal right to build the marina in the location they chose.
“It looks to me like what they did is permissible under the common law and the North Carolina general statutes,” said Kalo, a Graham Kenan professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Doug Mercer is a Washington councilman who also chairs the Beaufort County Planning Board.
Mercer said he combed through the public-private agreements authorizing the marina and offered suggestions on wording in conjunction with Bobby Roberson, a retired city planner and a council member.
Mercer said the marina configuration is unique in his experience.
“It’s never come up before, that I’m aware of, in Washington or Beaufort County,” he commented.
The novelty of the marina’s situation, alongside a publicly owned boardwalk, may be the source of some questions about the structure.
Also playing into the debate may be lingering resentments about the fact that, years ago, the city sold adjacent property for high-end residential development.
Here the Daily News endeavors to answers readers’ questions about the marina by detailing documents related to the project and providing answers from officials who have an inside track.
A separate issue
The article that prompted readers’ questions focused largely on Bob Wilson, president of Rowboat Dock &Dredge-The Rowboat Co. of Mooresville.
Public documents dating from December 2009 list Wilson as a manager of Moss Property Partners, the marina developers.
Rowboat is mentioned repeatedly in the 64-page indictment of Ruffin Poole, former Gov. Mike Easley’s onetime special counsel and personal assistant.
Poole has been indicted on 51 counts, including extortion, bribery, use of the mail in aid of racketeering, money laundering and monetary transactions in criminally derived property.
Wilson, whose company Web site lists him as the founder and president of Rowboat, has not been charged with a crime in relation to the Poole matter.
“We haven’t done anything improper, no conflict of interest,” Wilson told the Daily News early this year. “We certainly haven’t broken any laws. We haven’t done anything wrong.”
Wilson isn’t named in the indictment papers, but the papers do reference the owner of Rowboat, presumably Wilson.
Wilson serves on the state’s Coastal Resources Commission.
Critics have said that Wilson’s position on the CRC, along with his status as a coastal developer, presents a conflict of interest. This is an assertion that Wilson denies.
Wilson was first appointed to a four-year term on the CRC on Dec. 17, 2002, according to Michele Walker, a public information officer for the N.C. Division of Coastal Management.
Wilson’s current term expires June 30.
The Division of Coastal Management’s Web site shows that Wilson serves in an at-large position; his expertise is not listed, but his company is listed.
All CRC members are appointed by the governor, Walker said.
Wilson was an Easley appointee.
CRC members have no authority to grant environmental permits, Walker confirmed.
CRC members do entertain requests from people asking for variances to construct things like piers, she said.
“They hear variance requests at almost every meeting,” Walker said.
Some of the commissioners are developers, and, “That’s by design,” Walker added.
Governors try to appoint people who have experience in specific coastal issues, Walker related.
“Generally speaking, (commissioners) would not get involved in lobbying for a particular permit because that’s just not what they do,” Walker said.
A call seeking information about laws regulating lobbying for permits was placed to the state attorney general’s office. The call was not returned.
A check of the permit files for the Washington marina did not uncover e-mails from Wilson to permit authorities regarding that project, Walker said.
The indictment papers allege that people close to Easley conducted behind-the-scenes efforts to speed permitting for Cannonsgate, a residential development in Carteret County.
(Easley bought into Cannonsgate, the Raleigh News &Observer has reported.)
Page 24 of the indictment papers allege that, on June 2, 2005, Charlotte developers involved in Cannonsgate “received an e-mail from an employee of The Rowboat Company, which had been hired to finalize the marina at Cannonsgate. In the e-mail, the employee explained how he and the owner of The Rowboat Company (who is also a Coastal Resources Commissioner) were able to quell (an N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources) employee’s concern that some of the proposed dredging in the Cannonsgate marina might go beyond the scope of the dredging previously approved.”
The employee wrote that “it didn’t hurt that (the owner of the Rowboat Company) sits on the board of commissioners for CAMA,” the papers read.
Tom Fetzer, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, has indicated that Wilson should resign from the CRC because “much of this scandal revolves around the projects” with which the developer is involved.
Wilson told the Daily News that he has no reason to resign from the commission.
“We work for individuals and municipalities and developers throughout the southeastern United States,” he said. “Every state and each municipality has its own set of guidelines and rules and their own agencies of jurisdiction. In order to comply with the individual requirements of a jurisdiction, marine designers and contractors like us must frequently discuss specific requirements with state agencies.”