County signs VOA property agreement

Published 10:00 pm Friday, September 26, 2014

The Beaufort County Commissioners met Friday morning to decide whether to sign an agreement to take responsibility for the federally owned VOA property or potentially risk losing it.

In a special called meeting, the commissioners debated assuming “constructive possession” of the property, which would mean the county immediately takes full responsibility for the land until the deed is signed over to the county in approximately two months.

“In essence, the county would be the custodian of the property, which means we don’t own it, but we have all the responsibility for it until that title is transferred,” said Attorney David Francisco.

With custodianship comes the cost of maintaining the land, an issue commissioners addressed when they ultimately decided to sign the agreement, but with their own stipulations included. The deadline to return the signed document was noon on Friday.

In April, County Manager Randell Woodruff approached the commissioners about the possibility of obtaining the property that the National Park Service and General Services Administration are seeking to hand off to a nonprofit or government entity at no cost. The 2,821-acre parcel is located in the northwest corner of the county and once housed a Voice of America radio transmitter facility that was decommissioned in 2006. The long-term plan is to create a public park on the parcel, its maintenance cost provided through the sale of timber harvested from the land. But it is the short-term plan to assume control of the property with no established financial support that had commissioners adding their own provision to the agreement.

According to a budget provided by County Manager Randell Woodruff, one-time expenses to clean up the property come in at $555,000. This includes removing the radio tower and utility poles, various repairs and the development of a master park plan. Yearly expenses would measure out at $98,000 for this fiscal year and $216,241 for subsequent years, a cost that also includes full-time employees to oversee park operations. In the immediate, however, the county will incur the expense of $1,200 to $1,400 in utilities a month to keep the lights operating — a security issue, as well as an FAA requirement for the tall tower on the property.

County commissioners added their own condition to the returned agreement: the county would accept “constructive possession” of the property if the county is allowed to use no more than 10 percent of the parcel — 280 acres — to establish a wind or solar farm to offset costs in the short run.

Commissioner Hood Richardson told those assembled that once the modified agreement is sent off, with no guarantee of its acceptance by the National Park Service, the commissioners should immediately set up meetings with North Carolina’s U.S. senators and congressmen to lobby on the county’s behalf to allow a revenue-producing project to fund maintenance on the property and buildings located there.

Initially, Richardson suggested commissioners not sign the agreement, but make a counteroffer. However, Commissioner Gary Brinn initiated a discussion about what could possibly happen if the county did not agree to take possession of the property by Friday’s deadline. Only nonprofits and government bodies were allowed to apply for possession and a large, Virginia-based organization that serves the homeless had also submitted an application. If the property went to another entity, Beaufort County would gain nothing, since the land can’t be taxed, Woodruff said.

“I’m afraid if we don’t sign … If we don’t move on this and sign the agreement, we’re going to lose the property,” Brinn said.

A compromise was ultimately reached by adding the provision for a short-term revenue-producing project; the motion passed by a 5 to 1 vote. Commissioner Robert Belcher was not in attendance. Commissioner Al Klemm, who expressed fears that the land would become a “money pit,” was the lone dissenting vote.