County, mayor disagree on hospital demolition

Published 8:27 pm Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Though now a pile of debris on Water Street, the Belhaven hospital continues to spark heated debate.

The latest round came at the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners’ January meeting, when Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal told commissioners a letter from the lead county building inspector influenced the outcome of a lawsuit and lifted a temporary restraining order that was preventing demolition of the hospital.

O’Neal, along with Commissioner Hood Richardson, alleged corruption on the part of county staff for following through on a property inspection request by one of the managers of Pantego Creek LLC, Brantley Tillman. The inspection took place on Dec. 2 and resulted in a letter from lead building inspector Brandon Hayes explaining the property’s deficiencies. The four Pantego Creek LLC managers later submitted the letter as evidence in the lawsuit filed against them by eight members of the LLC who claimed they had been misinformed by the managers leading up to the vote on the hospital’s demolition. Superior Court Judge Gregory McGuire ruled in favor of the LLC’s managers on Dec. 28; demolition started the same day.

“We’ve had a pretty graphic, brutal death in our community. If you drive past the hospital property, you can see it. It’s a horrible-looking situation — about 10-foot high debris. And that is the future of our community,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal told commissioners that the county’s inspection letter used as evidence, and the fact that the inspections department had not alerted Belhaven town Manager Woody Jarvis to its existence, was political maneuvering.

“I know how difficult it is to live in a town, much less a county, where the inspections department can be used for political purposes, and that’s not what we need in Beaufort County. And that letter contributed in some small way to that hospital being a pile of rubble,” O’Neal said.

But county commissioners, with the exception of Hood Richardson, agreed that the county had done nothing wrong and followed normal procedure when carrying out the request for the inspection. County Manager Brian Alligood said it was an unusual request that the owner of a building would ask the county for an inspection — usually those requests come from tenants of property owners, neighboring property owners or at building inspectors’ own volition when they see a building in an obvious state of neglect — but he and inspections staff determined they would treat the request the same as any other request.

“That is part of what we do. That is part of the job of the county inspections department,” Alligood said.

The resulting letter was a list of issues that would have to be fixed before the property could be occupied, else the building would face demolition.

“Folks get a little confused about what condemning a building means,” Alligood said in a follow-up interview. “Doesn’t mean you have to tear it down; you just have to fix these things.”

The Town of Belhaven, O’Neal, and Pungo Medical Center, an LLC set up to coordinate the reopening of a hospital closed down in 2014 by Vidant Health, which cited continuing losses numbering in the millions trying to keep the rural hospital in operation, have tried to unsuccessfully find the means to reopen the hospital under private management for the past two and a half years.

Alligood said the county specifically tried to keep out of the court proceedings by not posting a demolition sign on the property after the inspection, instead simply writing a letter to the property owner.

The letter stated holes in the flooring, mold and mildew, roofing issues, walls compromised by leaks and more would have to be fixed before the building could be occupied.

O’Neal said those claims were grossly exaggerated; Commissioner Gary Brinn said he’d seen the inside of the building himself and could attest to its state of decay.

Alligood said, for the county, the matter basically boiled down to safety — for those rumored to have been using the abandoned building for shelter or entering to steal items inside — and liability: had the county not acted on the request for inspection and let Pantego Creek, LLC know its findings, the county could have been held liable for any injuries and/or deaths occurring on the property.

Commissioner Ron Buzzeo referred to a recent warehouse fire in Oakland, California, as an example of negligence on the part of local government. Complaints to city inspections staff by neighbors of the warehouse — used as living and performance space — were ignored. After a fire killed 36 people on Dec. 2, the city, as well as the owner of the building, may be liable for civil claims stemming from the tragedy.

Buzzeo also said McGuire’s ruling that allowed Pantego Creek LLC to move ahead with demolition was not based on the inspections letter, but whether the managers of Pantego Creek LCC had fulfilled their duty to the LLC’s 92 members.

“(The judge said) they were a model. They did everything they were supposed to do, and all LLCs should follow that model throughout the country. That’s what the judge said, and if you doubt my word, I would suggest you read the 70-something pages of this and see what the judge had to say on this thing,” Buzzeo said. “The county did what they were supposed to do. The allegations of wrongdoing by the county are unprofessional, and there’s no foundation for it.”