By Jesse Wood
Aug. 20, 2013. After a public hearing on the matter, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to cancel the $1.7 million contract, which is currently in the five-month due diligence stage, for the 200-acre land acquisition for the purpose of developing a business park along N.C. 194, three miles outside of town.
A trio in opposition more than not – Commissioners David Blust, Billy Kennedy and John Welch opposed the land acquisition, while Chair Nathan Miller and Commissioner Perry Yates supported the property purchase.
Before the vote, more than a dozen community members spoke. A majority of those opposed the proposed business park on undeveloped land in the Meat Camp community.
While supporters of the project cited the $7,900 per-acre “bargain” purchase price, eventual higher paying jobs and an aesthetically-pleasing economic development, agricultural usage of the property, forward-thinking and a new location for landlocked Green Valley School, reasons for opposing the project included degradation of the “beautiful” farm land, the “bad location,” mounting costs for infrastructure and road improvements, lack of a clear vision for the property, the unknown of outside businesses actually planting roots in the park and the “hypocrisy” of the board spending taxpayers’ money to purchase 200 acres of land after citing debt obligations and the property-tax revaluation as reasons not to fund other items during the budget work sessions earlier this year.
Joe Furman, director of the Economic Development Commission, which has supported a new business park in the county for several years, introduced the topic of the public hearing before the commissioners and those in attendance. While noting that the inspection period ends on Sept. 3, he mainly spoke of the infrastructure needs for the property.
He noted that fiber optics and cable were already on site nearby and that N.C. Department of Transportation had expressed a willingness to fund road improvements. He said that natural gas is currently three miles away from the N.C. 194 location in the Perkinsville area. He said if the county were to bear the full cost of the natural gas infrastructure, estimates for at least one route that was proposed exceeded $1 million.
Then the public hearing began.
EDC Chair Lauren Waterworth said a business park would attract high-paying wages. She said if the property was under the county’s control, the county would be able to control “aesthetics” and environmental and cultural impacts that any future development would impose on the area. She also noted the purchase price, which couldn’t be “beat” anywhere in the High Country.
Derek Moretz spoke in opposition to the acquisition and subsequent business park development. As a native whose family owns 150 acres north of the N.C. 194 property, he said he was representing himself and his family in speaking out against the proposal.
He talked about walking through rows of corn, kicking up dirt and collecting Native American artifacts on the property as a child. He said he remembered fishing in Meat Camp Creek, which borders the 200-acre property, and seeing Doc Watson baptized in its waters.
Moretz noted that this purchase wouldn’t be “suburban sprawl” – it would be “suburban leap frog.”
“The county’s role is not to be speculative realtors,” Moretz said. “I urge you to cut your losses, stop the bleeding and save our heritage landscape.”
Mike McKee, a professor of economics at ASU, spoke in opposition to the project mostly because a benefit-cost analysis, which is his expertise, had not been conducted.
“None of that has been discussed at all,” McKee said. “The benefits at this point seem to be largely pie in the sky.”
In reference to a comment by another Meat Camp/Green Valley resident about the “most beautiful property in the county being destroyed,” former EDC Chair Keith Honeycutt spoke about meshing the buildings of the business park with the topography of the area in a tasteful fashion.
“We are not interested in 200,000-square-foot buildings,” Honeycutt said, adding that a smokestack industrial park was also out of the question because the “industrial days are over in the United States.”
Honeycutt mentioned that EDC Member Tommy Soffield of U.S. Steel Buildings, which has a location in the industrial park off of U.S. 421, expanded twice but had to move the expansions out of the county because the “inventory wasn’t here.”
Charlie Wallin, who happens to be 1st vice chair of the Watauga County Democratic Party, questioned the inconsistency of the board to propose a $1.7 million purchase of 200-acres after hearing complaints from commissioners about, for example, maintaining greenways and the Rocky Knob Bike Park.
Pam Williamson, a county resident, also noted the “inconsistency” of the board and lack of clarity for exactly what would be developed at the 200-acre site. She noted that, as a local Democrat activist, she has politically “battled” with other folks who turned out in opposition to the development and purchase.
“Take a look at who signed those petitions [opposing the business park on N.C. 194]. Notice the diversity, those of us standing up together telling you that I don’t want our tax money on this project,” Williamson said. “People who have never worked together before are standing united.”
After listening to each community member speak, the commissioners took a turn to voice their opinion on why they was voting a particular way.
Chairman Nathan Miller led off that valid arguments existed on both sides. He noted that this business park wouldn’t be a “smokestack industrial park of old,” and referring to comments on “scenic beauty,” he said the realtor representing the seller told him that the bidder that the county beat wanted to build student housing on the property.
If that bidder purchased the property, Miller said there is “nothing to be done if that was what they were going to do.” He also noted that a future board could decide to utilize some of the property for the landlocked Green Valley School, and that the county and its younger generations needed better paying jobs that this park would provide.
He talked about the purchase price being “bottom dollar” and that other land the EDC looked at for a proposed business park along U.S. 421 near Deep Gap cost nearly $80,000 per acre as opposed to the roughly $8,000 per acre along N.C. 194.
“I think it’s an ill conceived notion not to purchase the property,” Miller said, adding that this was an investment in the future of Watauga County for bargain costs.
After blasting the Town of Boone’s “unreasonable regulations,” Commissioner David Blust noted that only 70 or so acres of the 200-acre property was developable, that infrastructure costs were “going to be exorbitant,” and that there wasn’t any guarantee that the N.C. Department of Transportation was “going to fix 194.”
“I think buying 200 acres isn’t necessarily what is needed for a business park,” Blust said. “I have to vote no on that. I am not in support of this right now.”
While Commissioner Perry Yates said he agreed that the location was “not a place” for a business park, Yates said he was looking towards the future with this potential land acquisition.
“An investment for the future doesn’t happen over night,” Yates said “I am not looking at this per se business park. I am looking at this per se Watauga County … I am for it [although] I agree this is not a place for a business park.”
He talked about having a county water source, a place for agricultural business and a new Green Valley School while mentioning that business owners should pay for a business park – not the county.
Commissioner Billy Kennedy said he was “torn” on this vote because he is a “big believer” in infrastructure development.
During his spiel, Kennedy said that earlier this year he “fought tooth and nail” for community members and nonprofits who needed help, whether it was for mental health funds or financial assistance for homeless shelters. He said his Republican counterparts were “harping” on reducing the debt and underfunding nonprofits, but now the board seemed to be a “hypocrisy” to support this proposal.
“What I’ve seen from the majority of this commission, I can’t be apart of this,” Kennedy said.
Commissioner John Welch, who had already reneged his support for the project before spending more than $50,000 on a due diligence, engineering assessment of the property in May, mentioned that he heard a variety of uses for this property that ran counter to the business park proposal that was the initial stated purpose for this property.
“I think what we have here is we are kind of throwing a whole bunch of stuff against the wall to see what sticks,” Welch said. “I have been an opponent of this project and I continue to be one tonight … I am always a no for this project.”