ON HOLD: Lawsuit prevents zoning ordinance allowing Chocowinity jail

Published 6:01 pm Saturday, July 5, 2014

 CHOCOWINITY — A lawsuit filed by a group of Beaufort County residents has put a kink in the works for a zoning ordinance that would allow a jail to be built in Chocowinity.

Last week, the “Stop the Jail” committee filed a lawsuit naming the Town of Chocowinity and its board commissioners as having violated North Carolina’s open meetings law at the June 3 public hearing in which comments for and against the change to the town’s zoning ordinance were heard. The amendment specifically allowing the construction of a jail in the county-owned Chocowinity Industrial Park was passed, 4-0, by the town board in the meeting that followed the public hearing.

As the Beaufort County fire marshal, Curtis Avery, had informed town officials that only 24 people could be present in the meeting room due to fire regulations, many people waited outside and in the building’s hallway for their turn to speak. The lawsuit is based on the belief that town officials had ample warning about the number of people in attendance and should have moved the hearing to a larger venue so that everyone present could participate simultaneously.

Keith Mason, Chocowinity’s town attorney, speaking on behalf of the town, maintained there was no violation of the open meetings law: anyone in attendance at the hearing was given the opportunity to sign up to speak; the names of those who signed up were called several times and all those who had signed up did speak, with the exception of one person who had left the premises.

According to one town official, the purpose of the lawsuit is to keep the ordinance from being passed — if a judge finds in favor of the plaintiffs, the public hearing and meeting will likely be held a second time. However, the existing language in Chocowinity’s ordinance doesn’t prohibit a jail built within town limits or the town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). While the ordinance does say that law enforcement, fire and rescue and any other public safety facility can be built, it does not say, specifically, that a jail can be built.

As evidenced by the public hearing, many residents are concerned that a public safety complex/jail in the Chocowinity Industrial Park would bring safety concerns, drop property values, raise taxes for Beaufort County taxpayers and deter any company from choosing to bring its industry there versus an industrial park elsewhere — that it could cost much needed jobs in the county.

Chocowinity Public Works Director Kevin Brickhouse disagreed that a public safety center would cost the county jobs.

Brickhouse was a member of the local contingent that met with representatives from Duke Energy, the consulting firm McCallum Sweeney and the North Carolina Department of Commerce during the information-gathering phase of Duke Energy’s Site Readiness Program, a program that assesses potential for industrial development at a given site, and results in a report for county officials to use as a marketing tool.

During the meeting, Brickhouse said he and Chocowinity Mayor Jimmy Mobley were assured that a public safety center/jail in the industrial park would not be a detriment to bringing in new industry, in fact it would likely be a draw as its presence would mean an increased level of safety within the park.

“If anything, they said it will actually, possibly, help improve this facility,” Brickhouse said.

When asked specifically whether a public safety center, including a jail, would be a detriment to the park’s ability to recruit industry, Duke Energy public information officer Lisa Parrish responded: “We are evaluating the site from an economic development standpoint. We are not going to tell any community where to put its jail.”

Parrish said the company has no plans to set up any type of Duke Energy operations in the Chocowinity Industrial Park — Duke Energy’s only role is to assess the park as part of its Site Readiness program. The assessment report will be released this week.

No hearing date has been set in the lawsuit against the Town of Chocowinity and Town of Chocowinity Commissioners William Albritton, Arlene Jones, Louise Furman and M.L. Dunbar. Mason said the hearing will be set up relatively quickly, as the plaintiffs asked for a preliminary injunction, a measure that would prevent the Chocowinity Town Board from enacting the zoning amendment until the case has been resolved.