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Watauga County Fire Marshal Waits for Requested Records from Town of Boone Pertaining to ETJ Transition Jan. 1

By Jesse Wood

Oct. 28, 2014. In September when Watauga County Fire Marshal and Emergency Coordinator Steve Sudderth requested information pertaining to fire inspections and special events occurring in Boone’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ), Sudderth was told he would have to make a formal records request in writing with the Town of Boone, according to an Oct. 23 letter from County Attorney Four Eggers to Town Clerk Christine Pope.

Sudderth was making this request because come Jan. 1, 2015, the ETJ area will be in the jurisdiction of Watauga County and thus its fire safety and emergency management officials must make preparations for the transition that is only a few months away.

So on Oct. 9, Sudderth sent an email to Pope requesting the following information:

  • addresses where the Boone Fire Department is currently doing fire inspections in the ETJ
  • list of special events that the town’s fire department or planning and inspections office has permitted for 2013 and 2014 in the ETJ

Eggers’ letter states that Pope immediately responded, noting a high volume of records request and saying “bear with us as we try to process them as quickly as we are able.”

On Tuesday, Pope told High Country Press that in order to maintain consistency with public records requests, the Town of Boone is fulfilling them in the order in which they are received. She said she would prefer to not further comment on the matter. Mayor Andy Ball said he didn’t have a comment on the matter.

Town Attorney Sam Furgiuele said that the town has received more than 25 records requests in the past month and many of those called for “very large volume of records and some requiring extensive research to locate records.”

As long as I have worked for the Town of Boone, it has processed public record requests in the order in which they are received,” Furgiuele said in an email. “… It is processing those as quickly as possible. The town intends to respond to all requests. Let me add, however, that it is not clear at this time whether the records which have been requested by Watauga County exist in the form requested.”

On Tuesday, Watauga County Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Miller sent an email to local media with the Eggers’ letter attached.

In the email Miller wrote: “By denying the county the appropriate records the Town of Boone is ensuring that the transition will not be smooth. More importantly the Town of Boone is directly affecting the health and safety all of the citizens who live and work in the ETJ by failing to turn over these records. These records allow the county fire marshal to inspect premises to ensure that fire codes are met. These fire codes are important because god forbid a fire occurs in a commercial or industrial building and that building is not in compliance by having, [say,] a locked exit door [and] citizens could die.”

In Eggers’ letter dated Oct. 23, Eggers wrote, “As a governmental body tasked with providing for the protection, safety and welfare of our citizens, I would think that some deference would be given to the duly appointed Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Coordinator. Failing to provide necessary records to the County Fire Marshal and the Emergency Management Office in a timely manner is beyond my comprehension.”

The N.C. General Assembly passed N.C. Sen. Dan Soucek’s sponsored bill to eliminate Boone’s authority in the ETJ in June, effective Jan. 1, 2015. When the matter was before state legislators, Soucek said the Town of Boone has “grossly abused and overstepped” the original intent of ETJs, which began with a 1959 state law allowing municipalities to regulate up to two miles outside of a town’s boundary to compensate for growth.

In early October, the Town of Boone filed a lawsuit against the State of North Carolina, challenging the legislation.

“We believe we have an obligation to the citizens of Boone, and to those who live in the ETJ, to challenge this law so that they can receive the same benefits and protections that citizens of other North Carolina towns and cities receive,” Mayor Andy Ball said in a statement earlier this month announcing the lawsuit.

Both Miller and Eggers noted the current lawsuit.

“I realize that the Town of Boone does not wish to accept that the State of North Carolina has taken away its control of its ETJ; nonetheless, the County Fire Marshal must take steps to prepare for the transition of authority over this area in order to ensure safety of the citizens living in this area and provide for a smooth transition of inspections,” Eggers wrote. “Providing records to the Fire Marshal has nothing to do with the politics of the town’s ETJ authority; it is simply good common sense for all governmental entities to work together for the benefit of their citizens.”

Eggers requested the documents to Sudderth to be received no later than Nov. 12.

See letter from Eggers to Pope here.