By Jesse Wood
May 23, 2013. Nearly two months into the five-month inspection period for the proposed business park property off of N.C. 194, one of the Watauga County Board of Commissioners has already decided to rescind his support for the proposed project.
In the first week of April, the commissioners unanimously agreed to purchase 199 acres off of N.C. 194, three miles from Hardin Park Elementary School, for the purpose of a Class A Commerce Park. The agreement was contingent upon a five-month due diligence period, whereby the commissioners could rescind their offer if they were to find the site unsuitable.
At last Tuesday’s commissioner meeting – amidst the controversial nonprofit allocations and the abolishment of the DSS board – Commissioner John Welch’s lone vote not to fund Asheville-based McGill Associates $52,000 to perform due diligence, preliminary engineering analysis and boundary surveys flew under the radar.
“I am against a business park on that property. I think it is a waste of county money at this point,” Welch said. “I am for a county business park, but we need to put it in a place suitable for a business park to thrive. To me, [N.C.] 194 is not the place for it … I have a problem with that. I have a hard time believing a business park would succeed out there. Would it be worth the investment? I am not saying I am against a business park, but we need to invest in one in the right location.”
During the April meeting when the county said it was looking to purchase the nearly 200 acres, Welch was vocal about his back-and-forth thought process. He even mentioned that the site could be a great location to house a new Green Valley School, which is currently landlocked in a growing region of the High Country.
“Well, I was looking to see what our options would be, and I wanted to see if that property would serve the county in a good purpose, but I even said then that I didn’t want to look at it as just a business park,” Welch said. “Now I am hearing business park slash possible water source.”
“If we were to have a reservoir, imagine the tons of permitting, and I couldn’t imagine the cost or how long it would take,” Welch said.
Welch said he has now decided to back out of the deal before he voted to drop any money on the potential project. The $52,000 was funded with the Watauga County Economic Development Commission fund balance. In April, County Finance Director Margaret Pierce said the EDC had a fund balance of $432,000.
Welch also mentioned the unknowns of the upcoming property revaluation. The last time the county conducted its tax revaluation was in 2006, before the bottom fell out of the economy.
He noted that roughly $18,000 in nonprofit allocations were slashed and moved to the county’s capital improvement plan
“Now we have the reval coming up, and some commissioners are saying we don’t have money for nonprofits, yet we are turning around and looking to spend $1.7 million and another $52,000 just for land analysis,” Welch said. “I have a problem with that.”
When asked about Welch’s vote on Thursday, Commissioner David Blust said, “I was torn on that too.”
He noted that a reservoir is one of the options being discussed.
“Again, it’s just in the early stages of due diligence,” Blust said.
Blust also mentioned the unknowns of what the reval will bring.
“I know how John feels,” Blust said, adding that he isn’t sure with the unknowns of the upcoming reval, if this is the “right move at the right time.”
“I am still 50/50,” Blust said. “But we’ve got to spend some money find some information. It’s a great deal land-wise. No question, it’s a tremendous deal but [with] a lot of variables – water, sewer, the road going out there and what we are going to find on the land.”
Blust also noted that a new Green Valley Elementary School on the property should be considered because of the school being landlocked and the area being one of the more populated areas in Watauga County during the past 10 years.
“That’s certainly something to check into,” Blust said.
During the April meeting when the commissioners agreed to entertain the purchase of the property, Commissioners Perry Yates, Billy Kennedy and Chair Nathan Miller all mentioned the option to back out during the due diligence period.
For any business park, Water and other infrastructure are vital.
According to InSite Consulting, which performed a marketing analysis for the EDC when talk of the old Watauga High School property housing a business park was proposed, “Without fully infrastructured (water and sewer lines w/ excess capacity, natural gas, ample 3-phase power, telecommunications fiber) product in a community, an economic development program will not attract quality companies.”
Chair Nathan Miller said the 199-acre property borders Meat Camp Creek yet doesn’t encompass Meat Camp Creek, so the county couldn’t dam up the whole creek if it wanted to. Miller said he wasn’t looking at this property for a countywide water source but as a business park to create jobs.
“For this property itself, we could have our own self-contained water sewer system on Meat Camp Creek with plenty of water from wells and possibly a water retention tank to add pressure to it. Would it supply the whole county? Certainly not, but it would supply a park, which is what businesses want,” Miller said, adding that nothing is definitive because the due diligence stage is currently taking place.
As for the water sources, Watauga County Economic Development Commission Director Joe Furman said that little discussion into water sources have taken place yet
“There’s an assumption we are going to go with wells. The subject of a reservoir has been mentioned. That’s as far as we are. We are just beginning due diligence and surveying,” Furman said.
Asked if a water source would be solely for the proposed business park or to be used for other parts of the county, Furman said, “That’s a quantum leap.”
Commissioner Perry Yates said he advocates for a countywide water system.
“You need water for a business park, but at the same token, that water is needed by the city and the county. That’s the number one problem in Watauga County. The city tells people that they are holding back development because there is no water,” Yates said.
“I am looking for water out there. I’d like to have a water source. The New River is 12 miles from town. [The proposed business park] is 3.5 miles from town,” Yates said.
As for the New River, Yates was referring to the source of the Town of Boone’s proposed water intake system, which is currently at a standstill. Federal authorities halted the project after Ashe County refused to sign pertinent documents because Boone officials didn’t notify Ashe County that it was financing an access road to the intake facility, which is located in Watauga County but passes through Ashe County.
So far the town has invested nearly $2.4 million in the project for property purchases, engineering, attorney fees for land acquisition and reclassification of the New River. The town purchased 11 acres of land for the intake site for $960,000, said Town Manager Greg Young at a Boone Water Use Committee meeting earlier in May.
In 2008, town voters approved a $25-million bond referendum for a new intake system, garnering 73 percent support for the project. And two years later, the Boone Town Council accepted a $20.5-million loan from the USDA to finance the project. Now, nearly five years later since the referendum, some of the Town of Boone’s Water Use Committee members have thrown out the idea of stopping the project altogether to prevent throwing good money after bad.
It has yet to purchase any where close to all of the right of ways required for the transmission line that will bring the water into Boone. Now, officials are concerned about bills in the General Assembly that could derail the planned intake system such as the state takeover of municipal utilities, which Asheville and Charlotte are currently facing.
Yates said he would be willing to sit down with officials from the Town of Boone to discuss the Watauga’s future water needs, adding that working together achieves more for the greater good.
“If government officials don’t start looking down the road, in the future we are going to be in a lot of trouble,” Yates said.
Boone is already knee deep in that process; Watauga isn’t.
Commissioner Billy Kennedy didn’t return a phone call on Thursday.