By Jesse Wood
One day after the Ashe County Board of Commissioners voted not to pass a resolution supporting Rep. Jonathan Jordan’s eminent domain bill and asked that Ashe County be removed from the bill, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners did the opposite and passed a resolution supporting Jordan’s bill.
If passed in the N.C. General Assembly, House Bill 875 would require municipalities seeking to condemn land outside of its jurisdiction to receive consent from the county commissioners. The bill’s sponsorship comes on the heels of the Town of Boone notifying landowners of its intent to acquire easements along the transmission line route of its proposed water intake near Todd – either through a fair negotiation or eminent domain.
The bill only affects Ashe and Watauga counties – as it stands now. Jordan originally filed it as a statewide bill but met objections from other congress members because it would impact projects in his colleagues’ jurisdictions.
Now, Jordan may have to amend the bill once again to only affect Watauga. Jordan didn’t respond to a request for comment after the Ashe County Board of Commissioner’s meeting.
Gary Roark, chair of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners, one of the three on the county board that voted against supporting House Bill 875, didn’t respond to a request for comment either.
As for the Watauga County Board of Commissioners, the board voted 4-1 in passing a resolution supporting Jordan’s bill on Tuesday morning. Commissioner Billy Kennedy was the lone dissenter.
Kennedy said he was a “little torn” between voting against or for the resolution.
“I am curious. If it is such a good law, why target just two counties? To me it seems like political retribution,” Kennedy said. “If it is truly a statewide benefit, why can’t he get it passed statewide?”
Kennedy also noted that if it wasn’t for eminent domain, much of the public infrastructure that exists – such as roads – wouldn’t be available for the public to utilize.
Commissioner John Welch, a Democrat, sided with the three Republicans on the board in supporting the bill.
“Normally, I would vote for a local bill, but again I kind of wish this was statewide. I will support this resolution in hopes that it is expanded statewide and is not just a targeted bill,” Welch said. “We need to move away from local bills and start keeping everyone in the state on a level playing field.”
Welch noted that he was contacted by some folks in opposition that live in the area of where the easement acquisition is taking place for the intake and “it raised a lot of questions for me.”
“We are their elected leaders out there,” Welch said.
Commissioner David Blust agreed that this should be a state bill – and not just one that affects Ashe and Watauga counties. He has also been a very vocal opponent of the town’s proposed water intake.
“I don’t think the town should have authority to go outside and do eminent domain without county commissioner approval,” Blust said.
Commissioner Perry Yates said that the commissioners are the only voice for the people outside of the city limits in Watauga County. He added that this is a “private property rights” issue.
“Everyone works hard to achieve and obtain property and pay their taxes. Not only is it a state and local issue, I think it’s an American issue. America was founded on the right and if taxes are paid, if you don’t want to sell. Then you don’t have to sell,” Yates said. “I am in full favor of this.”
Commissioner Jimmy Hodges, who is also the chair of the board, said little other than that the town is “overstepping” its boundary.
At the first commissioner meeting in May a few weeks ago, the idea for this resolution was spawned by local activists opposing the Town of Boone’s intake, Deborah Green and Frank Packard, who both requested that the commissioners pass a resolution supporting House Bill 875.
On Tuesday, Packard spoke during public comment once again.
One of Packard’s points on Tuesday was the Town of Boone doesn’t seem to be offering a “fair” payment for at least one particular property within the waterline route in comparison to what he paid for adjacent property.
Packard held up a copy of a letter sent to a Mr. Cooper that owns 1.81 acres adjacent to the 10 acres that the Town of Boone purchased years ago for this intake project.
Packard pointed out that while the Town of Boone is offering $23,700 for this easement, it paid more than $80,000 per acre to purchase that original 10-acre plot for the proposed intake several years ago.