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Originally published: 2013-08-20 21:41:19
Last modified: 2013-08-20 21:42:02

Commissioners reject 212-acre business park

by Kellen Short

Watauga County commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday against purchasing a 212-acre property off N.C. 194 for development as a business park.

Vice Chairman David Blust joined Commissioners Billy Kennedy and John Welch in opposing the project, while Chairman Nathan Miller and Commissioner Perry Yates voted to move forward with the $1.7 million purchase.

The vote followed a lengthy public hearing in which most of the 18 speakers said they opposed the proposal, citing transportation issues, infrastructure costs and the scenic beauty of the area.

"I personally do not want my tax money to go for a business park in a very bad location," said local realtor Liz Riddick, the first to speak in opposition to the purchase Tuesday.

Numerous speakers critiqued the location of the land, which is about three miles from New Market Centre, and its potentially difficult access along curvy N.C. 194. Others said the unknown cost of installing the necessary infrastructure was too big a burden for county taxpayers.

"Everyone loves a bargain, but when is a bargain not a bargain?" asked Ingrid Kraus, who said the water, sewer, gas, road, permitting and planning would raise the per-acre price far above what it appears.

Derek Moretz said his family owns a 150-acre farm north of the property and said he was disappointed by the suburban sprawl he felt was occurring throughout the county.

"The county's role is not to be speculative real estate investors," Moretz said.

Others simply said the county did not have enough information to justify the purchase.

ASU professor Mike McKee said he hadn't heard enough about the types of businesses to be recruited.

"None of that has been discussed at all," he said. "There seems to be no plan for this. ... The benefits at this point seemed to be, largely, pie in the sky."

But those who spoke in support of the project pointed to the area's lack of higher-paying jobs and the fact that consultants and the Department of Commerce have pointed out Watauga's lack of client-ready sites.

"It's about jobs. It's about investing in jobs for the people of Watauga County," said Nancy Reigel, chairwoman of the High Country United Way Vision Council.

Former Economic Development Commission Chairman Keith Honeycutt said the current industrial park, which is filled to capacity, provides about 300 jobs and cost relatively little from the county to develop.

Miller, the Republican chairman, said the barriers holding back the site could be overcome, including the road access. He said the N.C. Department of Transportation is planning to improve at least part of N.C. 194 headed toward the site.

"If we don't want to have some industry here for our young people to come home and work at, then that's fine," he said. "But right now our young people don't stay in large numbers because there aren't any jobs. There just aren't up here."

Before the speakers began Tuesday, Miller also described his family's connection to the land, which he said has sparked questions in the community. He said his mother and his family's law firm previously represented the estate of the former owner after his death years ago.

He also said previously that he might have been related to the owner but through many generations of separation.

"In no way whatsoever do I profit from this purchase, if the purchase happens, nor does my family," Miller said.

Blust, who typically votes in agreement with Miller, described the DOT's pledge to improve N.C. 194 as "just talk."

He acknowledged that the land was a "great deal," but said he would prefer to see something along U.S. 421.

"I've got to vote no on this," Blust said. "I'm not in support."

Kennedy, who also voted against the purchase, said he had too many concerns about the land and about the direction of the Republican-majority board.

"I'm a big believer in infrastructure development, and this is the time to do it, but I can't be a part of this, I'm afraid," Kennedy said.

Welch, who was one of the first on the board to oppose the purchase, said he still found the location "questionable."

Yates voiced support for the purchase, saying he felt the land was a bargain whose potential was not yet known. He said he believed the site was not the proper choice for a business park but that it could have other uses for the county.

"I am for purchasing the property because there's not another piece of property available for agriculture, county schools or anything else in that area at this price," Yates said. "This piece of property is needed for Watauga County."

The outcome came as a disappointment to members of the Economic Development Commission.
"As the EDC, of course we're disappointed because we have put a whole lot of work in on this," EDC Chairwoman Lauren Waterworth said after the meeting.

When asked whether the EDC might consider other sites to propose to the board for purchase and development, Waterworth said she believed high purchase prices would limit options.

But she pledged that the commission would be back at work by its next meeting, seeking other ways to improve the lives of residents through economic development.

"We really need to commit to a business park for our county," Waterworth said.