Eminent domain efforts continue in Belhaven

Published 8:06 pm Thursday, January 14, 2016

BELHAVEN — The Town of Belhaven is continuing the fight to obtain the hospital property under eminent domain from Pantego Creek LLC.

The effort for eminent domain is just one part of Belhaven’s ongoing attempts to reopen the former Vidant Pungo Hospital, which closed in 2014.

According to reports, Belhaven requested more than $643,000 in loan and grant money to cover the cost of the eminent domain process, and many think it may be coming from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, although Mayor Adam O’Neal would only refer to the benefactor as “a charity out of Raleigh.”

O’Neal said that the funding for eminent domain is still in place, despite stories to the contrary.

Natalie Fogg, director of operations and grants administration at the Foundation, said she was unable to comment on the status of funding, and attempts to reach Executive Director Damon Circosta were unsuccessful.

Town attorney Wendel Hutchins was also not immediately available for questions.

For the town to secure a $6 million loan from the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development division to help cover the costs of operating the hospital, one of the stipulations is to provide proof of possession of the property — which would be satisfied with eminent domain.

Another big requirement is presenting a certificate of need, which is essentially a license to run a hospital, but in late September, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to amend the definition of an existing medical facility, thus qualifying the hospital building as such and waiving the loan requirement.

The property that the town wishes to acquire is actually made up of several sections of land. Recently, O’Neal and Alderman Charles Boyette expressed their wish for the Belhaven Community Chamber of Commerce to hand over its portion, located at 166 E. Water St.

The Chamber received the 0.56-acre parcel as a gift from Marian Keech in December.

“We’re just getting all our ducks in a row,” O’Neal said. “We are in the process of putting together the absolute strongest condemnation paperwork possible.”

Condemnation paperwork authorizes the impending eminent domain action, he said, and involves an involuntary deed transfer.

Once obtaining the land, the Town of Belhaven intends to turn it over to the nonprofit Pungo Medical Center. After the transfer, per state law, “the public or nonprofit agency shall, at its own expense, operate, repair and maintain the health care facilities covered by such agreement.”

O’Neal also said the town’s and state NAACP’s lawsuit appeal is still underway, following Superior Court Judge Stuart Albright’s decision in October to throw out the parties’ claims against Vidant Health and Pantego Creek.

“I think the Lord wants me to do it, and we’re going to do it,” he said. “But it is a fight every step of the way.”

Vidant officials remain adamant that the medical organization did no wrong when deciding to close the hospital, and are still dedicated to meeting health care needs in the area — spending $1.3 million in emergency services and building a $6 million, 24-hour clinic in Belhaven.