Dear Watauga County Commissioners:
I am writing to you in both my personal capacity as a resident and taxpayer of both Boone and Watauga County, and in my professional capacity as a historian and the principal consultant at Carolina Historical Consulting, LLC.
I am in receipt of a copy of County Manager Geouque’s email of December 9, 2020, at 5:09pm, to Boone Town Manager John Ward, announcing that the County Commissioners have “directed staff to proceed forward with the demolition of the Turner House” (historically known as the Oscar and Suma Hardin House) at 136 North Water Street in Boone, NC, to make room for a new courthouse parking lot.
As I have repeatedly informed you over the past two years, the Oscar and Suma Hardin House is historically significant both for its architecture and for its relationship to individuals of historical significance to Watauga County. The house was built in 1926 for Oscar (1883-1927) and Suma Bogle Little Hardin (1888-1931), both of whom contributed significantly to the business and social fabric of Boone during the 1920s. The house is also the boyhood home of Robert Bogle “Bobby” Hardin (1910-1977), the longtime mayor of Blowing Rock from 1953 to 1971. The house features several examples of architectural flourishes that are rare in Colonial Revival architecture of the period in Watauga County, including a steeply pitched gable over the main entrance; four Tuscan columns supporting a semi-circular balcony over the entrance porch; an ornate, second-floor, Palladian window; stunted, scrolled brackets beneath the eaves; and a front entrance with a webbed transom and sidelights with ornate tracery. With minor, restorative changes (removal of the vinyl/aluminum siding and restoration of the side porches), the house would be eligible for Local Historic Landmark designation and likely eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
As you know, the Boone Town Council and the Watauga County Board of Commissioners agreed on February 24, 2020, to explore a partnership to build a parking deck at the Queen Street lot that would facilitate a swap of the Hardin/Turner House property in exchange for additional Town contributions to such a joint venture. The County agreed not to demolish the Hardin/Turner property as long as a partnership appeared viable. Indeed, Manager Geouque requested just last month that the Town proceed with geotechnical work to ensure the stability of the Queen Street site—at considerable cost to the Town—and the results of this work are not yet complete. The Board’s sudden decision to demolish the property is not only an egregious and flagrant violation of the agreement between the Town and the County but also represents a gross disregard for the interests and expectations of the citizens of Watauga County.
The Oscar and Suma Hardin House is the property of the citizens of Watauga County, and as such, they deserve to have a voice in decisions about its future. Instead, the County Commissioners have chosen to proceed with demolition of the House behind closed doors, without legal authority, and without the statutorily required public notice. This action appears to be in direct violation of North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law (GS 143-318.9 to 318.18), thus violating the constitutional and other legal rights of the people of Watauga County. Your actions are subject to judicial review and action, and by copy of this letter, I am formally requesting that NC Attorney General Josh Stein investigate this matter for both criminal and civil violations of applicable state statutes.
This is not the first time that the Board and County Manager Geouque have engaged in actions on this issue that appear to violate North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law. I previously appeared before the Board on December 17, 2019, shortly after the County applied for a demolition permit for the house, and cautioned the Commissioners that their actions previous to that date appeared to have repeatedly violated state law and lacked transparency for the public at large. Indeed, I read the following comments into the record during that appearance:
I am here to express my concern about the actions Watauga County has taken in recent weeks regarding the Hardin/Turner Building on Water Street. I wrote to you last year at this time to explain the historical significance of the house and to express my concerns about the county’s plans to demolish the house for parking. This eventually led to discussions about the Town and County working together to not only save the house but also find a long-term parking solution downtown. Despite promises several of you made to me to work with the Town toward a solution, conversations appear to have ceased.
Indeed, I’m disappointed on the whole by the profound lack of transparency in how the county has handled this matter. When the commissioners authorized purchase of the property in July 2018, this topic was not listed on the official agenda. Instead, the commissioners waited until the end of the meeting to go into closed session, then emerged from closed session, reopened the meeting, and quietly voted to authorize the purchase without public comment. Nothing in the meeting minutes identified the county’s purpose for purchasing the property or made any mention of plans to demolish it.
In fact, the Hardin/Turner Building does not appear on any agenda for the period from July 2018 to June 2019, aside from a passing reference in the Capital Improvement Plan. Similarly, the County Commissioners’ minutes between July 2018 and May 2019 make no reference at all to plans for demolishing the building. Nevertheless, local press reported in January 2019 that the county manager had announced plans to demolish the building for parking at the December 3 meeting. I find such an omission from the minutes striking and difficult to dismiss as a mere oversight.
I am also reminded of the explanation that the county manager provided to the Boone Historic Preservation Commission for why he wanted to tear down the Hardin/Turner Building. He explained that his plans for building a parking deck behind the courthouse had been frustrated several years ago by complaints from a citizen who now serves on Town Council. It was clear that demolishing the Hardin/Turner Building was just another way for the county to continue its long running battle with the town and get revenge, presumably, for yet another perceived slight. At the time, I cautioned Deron that it would perhaps be in the county’s better interest to think of the Hardin/Turner building as an asset rather than a burden. For a short period of time when we were having discussions last summer, I thought maybe Deron agreed. Now, with his aggressive push for a demolition permit and a move to surplus the property, I’m afraid it’s just more of the lose-lose, county-town antagonism that has become tiresome and irritating for ALL of our local residents and voters.
There is some hope of course. Next month, a new conversation will begin about a possible library expansion and an associated parking deck on that property. I will be part of that conversation. I hope the county manager and the commissioners will also see that as an opportunity to revisit the future of the Hardin/Turner Building and how the County and Town can work together to save this historic resource while addressing their mutual infrastructure needs.
In response to my comments, several of you expressed outrage at having your honor impugned as a result of me calling out your actions. You claimed that it had never been your intent to hide anything from the public or engage in deceit. And yet now you appear to be engaging in exactly the same behavior once again. It’s shameful, anti-democratic, and contrary to both public policy and state law.
It is unclear from Manager Geouque’s December 9 email when, specifically, this demolition decision was discussed, but a careful search of Board minutes for the past several meetings finds no reference to this matter. Specifically, the agenda for the November 17, 2020, Board of County Commissioners makes no reference and includes no public notification of the Board’s intention to discuss any matter related to the Oscar and Suma Hardin House (aka, the “Turner House”). Indeed, the “Closed Session” agenda item only refers to “Attorney/Client Matters,” citing GS 143-318.11(a)(3). This section explicitly states (in full):
A public body may hold a closed session and exclude the public only when a closed session is required…to consult with an attorney employed or retained by the public body in order to preserve the attorney-client privilege between the attorney and the public body, which privilege is hereby acknowledged. General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant. The public body may consider and give instructions to an attorney concerning the handling or settlement of a claim, judicial action, mediation, arbitration, or administrative procedure. If the public body has approved or considered a settlement, other than a malpractice settlement by or on behalf of a hospital, in closed session, the terms of that settlement shall be reported to the public body and entered into its minutes as soon as possible within a reasonable time after the settlement is concluded.
Similarly, the December 7, 2020, published agenda for the Board’s meeting that morning contains no public notification of the Board’s intention to discuss any matter related to the Oscar and Suma Hardin House (aka, the “Turner House”). Indeed, the “Closed Session” agenda item only refers to “Attorney/Client Matters,” citing GS 143-318.11(a)(3) (see above) and “Land Acquisition,” citing GS 143-318.11(a)(5)(i), which does not extend to consideration of demolition of property. This section explicitly states (in full):
A public body may hold a closed session and exclude the public only when a closed session is required…to establish, or to instruct the public body’s staff or negotiating agents concerning the position to be taken by or on behalf of the public body in negotiating (i) the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange, or lease; or (ii) the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract.
Since a Board decision regarding demolition of the Hardin/Turner House cannot possibly be construed as falling under either section’s statutory language, this matter was clearly discussed in closed session without adequate public notice, in apparent violation of North Carolina law. Further, GS 143-318.11(c) requires that any motion for closed session under subdivision (a)(3) “shall identify the parties in each existing lawsuit concerning which the public body expects to receive advice during the closed session.” This was not done, nor is it reflected in the minutes for either session. Meanwhile, the publicly available minutes of these two sessions make absolutely no reference to the Board’s demolition decision regarding the Hardin/Turner House. GS 143-318.10(e) requires that
Every public body shall keep full and accurate minutes of all official meetings, including any closed sessions held pursuant to G.S. 143-318.11. Such minutes may be in written form or, at the option of the public body, may be in the form ofsound or video and sound recordings. When a public body meets in closed session, it shall keep a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired. Such accounts may be a written narrative, or video or audio recordings. Such minutes and accounts shall be public records within the meaning of the Public Records Law, G.S. 132-1 et seq.; provided, however, that minutes or an account of a closed session conducted in compliance with G.S. 143-318.11 may be withheld from public inspection so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session.
Accordingly, I hereby demand, on behalf of the citizens of Watauga County, that the full and accurate minutes of any past closed session related to the Hardin/Turner House property be made immediately available to the public via the County’s website, with a clear notation indicating where those closed session minutes might be located by web users.
Furthermore, the Board packet for the December 15, 2020, Board of Commissioners meeting makes no reference whatsoever to the Closed Session decision of the Board that Manager Geouque characterized in his December 9 email as consisting of the County Commissioners having “directed staff to proceed forward with the demolition of the Turner House.” This is the full text for that agenda item:
AGENDA ITEM 11: MISCELLANEOUS ADMINISTRATIVE MATTERSA.
Proposed Demolition of Turner Property Structures
In February, the Commissioners held a special called meeting with the Town of Boone to discuss the Turner House Property. After the meeting, direction was given to have a firm provide a conceptual drawing(s) and soil borings to determine the viability of a parking deck at the Town owned Queen Street lot. The County and Town provided two proposals and the Town’s proposal was selected due to the cost being less. In July, McGill Associates presented a rendering and cost estimate of the proposed deck at the Queen Street lot to the Board. The price tag was $10 to $15 million dollars but no soil borings were completed to determine the viability of the project. Continuing to delay construction of the parking lot/deck to meet the long-term parking needs of the courthouse facility only increases the escalation of the cost to the County. Bids were received for demolition of the Turner House and the lowest bidder is D.H. Griffin in the amount of $21,300. Due to the price and the uncertainty of the viability of the project, staff seeks direction from the Board on how to proceed.
Adequate funds have been budgeted to cover the expense of the demolition. Should the Board wish to proceed forward; action is required to accept D.H. Griffin’s bid in the amount of $21,300 to demolish the Turner House.
Staff seeks direction from the Board.
Given the County Manager’s (Deron Geouque) earlier email correspondence with the Town Manager, John Ward (which is public record), the County Manager’s comments in the Board packet for the December 15 meeting cannot be reasonably interpreted in any other manner than as a willful intent to misinform, deceive, and obscure the public’s understanding of the Board’s past conversations and decisions regarding the proposed demolition of the Hardin/Turner property.
As our County’s elected officials, your complicity in this deceit and apparent illegality is shocking, offensive, and quite likely criminal. I hope that you will reconsider your recent actions and not only work to save the Hardin/Turner House and continue to explore the solutions the Town and County have been working on all year, but also make a renewed and lasting commitment to improved transparency and honesty in how the Board sets agenda items and communicates the minutes of Board meetings to the public. Above all, I hope that you will abide hereafter by your sworn duty to uphold the laws of our county, our country, and the State of North Carolina.
Eric Plaag, PhD
Carolina Historical Conslting, LLC