The Southport Board of Aldermen has accepted an offer to purchase the former wastewater treatment plant property on West West Street.
A resolution accepting the $650,000 offer from Southport Marina Inc. was approved 5-1 during a special meeting, held Tuesday night in the emergency operations center, located on the second floor of fire headquarters.
The room had seating for 50 people, including the board of aldermen, and those seats were filled. Nearly 50 more gathered in the hallway to hear the decision.
Aldermen Lora Sharkey, Marc Spencer, Rick Pukenas, Robert Tucker and Jim Powell voted in favor of the sale. Alderman Karen Mosteller cast the lone dissenting vote.
Before entertaining a motion, Mayor Jerry Dove called for discussion on the issue. City manager Bruce Oakley reviewed the offer.
Though the property was not on the market, Southport Marina Inc. submitted an offer in January to purchase the property as-is. As outlined in the agreement, Southport Marina Inc. will bear the financial responsibility for environmental clean-up of the drying beds and demolition of the existing buildings and structures.
The agreement also grants the city a 10-foot easement along the northern side of the property, which will allow the public to access Cottage Creek, as well as .11 acre of uplands for a picnic shelter. The city will retain those easements in perpetuity.
The city debated putting the property on the market back in 2014 and estimated that clean-up would cost upwards of $365,000. Pukenas asked for clarification on that number.
“The $365,000 for demolition — that’s just the buildings and the structures on the property, correct? That’s not environmental clean-up,” he asked.
“That’s correct,” Oakley said.
Mosteller began by saying that all the aldermen believe that they are working in the best interest of the city.
“I’m proud to serve with everyone at this table,” she stated. “That being said, before we consider the resolution to sell the West West property, I want to recognize that last week at the February planning board meeting, the planning board discussed the importance of following the (Unified Development Ordinance), and actually voted to support a motion to let the board of aldermen know that the planning board is ready to complete their responsibilities regarding disposal of public property.”
Mosteller asked the board to follow the city ordinance, as outlined in section 3-10 of the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), which states, “The Planning Board shall review with the city manager and other city officials and report as recommendations to the Board of Aldermen upon the extent, location, and design of all public structures and facilities, on the acquisition and disposal of public properties, and on the establishment of building lines, mapped street lines, and proposals to change existing street lines.”
Mosteller then made a motion to table consideration of the resolution until the property and the offer could be reviewed by the city’s planning board. No one seconded the motion, and it died on the floor.
Mosteller then posed a question to city attorney Mike Isenberg.
“Is the board of aldermen compelled to follow our own ordinances, or can we exempt ourselves without due process?” she asked.
“Well, that’s nothing to do with due process,” Isenberg said. “That provision is strictly local in nature.”
He explained that state statute sets out seven duties for the planning board.
“Of course, approving the sale of public property is not one of them,” Isenberg added.
He pointed out that where selling property is concerned, state statute gives full discretion to the board aldermen. He noted that the section 3-10 in the city’s UDO was “unusual.”
“However, be that as it may, the city has adopted this ordinance,” he said. “My recommendation would be if the board decides to ignore their ordinance, that they would go ahead and institute a procedure to repeal that ordinance and make the repeal retroactive.”
He said that would be a text amendment to the UDO and require vetting by the planning board and a public hearing.
Oakley pointed out that the city is currently revising its UDO, and representatives with the Cape Fear Council of Governments recommended removing that provision from the future version.
“But it’s a standing ordinance,” Mosteller said.
Isenberg noted that because the ordinance did not affect any individual’s property rights, the board could repeal it and make the repeal retroactive.
Mosteller asked if that meant the city didn’t have to enforce its ordinances.
“Is that what you’re saying, Mike?” she asked.
“I’m saying that you should probably follow your ordinance, but if you don’t want to follow your ordinance, you should repeal the ordinance,” Isenberg said.
Sharkey made a motion to submit a proposal to the planning board to repeal section 3-10 of the city’s UDO. Tucker seconded it, and it was approved 5-1 with Mosteller dissenting.
Sharkey noted that if the resolution to sell the former wastewater treatment plant passes, Southport Marina Inc. would still need to present its plans to the planning board to ensure they comply with city code and the CAMA Land Use Plan.
Mosteller addressed claims that the planning board has not been used in previous public property transactions, including the decision to purchase the current City Hall building. She noted that with that particular transaction, the board vetted the decision for months and held numerous public hearings.
Tucker said that he felt the public did have the opportunity to weigh on the marina’s offer. He pointed out that the board had heard from the parks and recreation advisory board and heard public comment during the board of aldermen’s February 14 meeting.
“We’ve had emails about it, had personal contact with people about it, I’ve had text mail about it, phone calls — there’s been quite a bit more public contact than people would like to say,” he said. “But at this point and time, I would like to recommend that we adopt the resolution approving the sale of the property with the terms shown herein.”
“Is that in the form of motion?” asked Dove.
Tucker indicated that it was, and Powell seconded the motion.
Mosteller then questioned the contract and suggested that the board do its “due diligence” to ensure that the 10-foot easement could be used to benefit the public. She also questioned allowing a height variance to permit Southport Marina to construct a dry storage building that is 50 feet high.
“Variances are granted to relieve hardship, as we know, and this is really not a hardship because they can’t build a taller building than is allowed,” she said. “You can still do boat dry storage warehouse there. I just think this would be a slippery slope, granting variances to height restrictions based on a use like that.”
Mosteller also stated that she felt the property’s real value was greater than the $650,000 offered. She shared an email from Paul Swenson, a Southport resident and waterfront property owner, who also questioned whether $650,000 was an adequate amount for the property. But Tucker noted that Swenson retracted his letter later in the day.
Mosteller concluded her argument by noting that some of the structures that she hears citizens lament most often include the River Watch subdivision located adjacent to Kingsley Park, the house at the end of Atlantic Avenue and the “shoebox condos” at the Yacht Basin.
“These are just three examples that were not in the long-term best interest of the citizens of Southport,” she said. “This board should err on the side of caution with slow, thoughtful deliberation when it comes to land use decisions, especially before we give up publicly-owned land.”
Dove called for any additional discussion, and Mosteller read a plea to hold on to the property to avoid losing the asset forever.
Following her final comments, the board voted 5-1 to approve a resolution accepting Southport Marina Inc.’s offer to purchase the property. After the vote, citizens in the audience shouted, “Shame, shame, shame” at the board members who voted to accept the offer.
The marina now has a 150-day due diligence period to receive permits and perform soil testing.