Brunswick park purchase blasted as a commissioner bail out

Brunswick park purchase blasted as a commissioner bail out
Some residents are outraged over a multi-million dollar land purchase made by county commissioners. (Source: WECT)
An aerial view of the land before 2004. (Source: WECT)
An aerial view of the land before 2004. (Source: WECT)
An aerial view of the land after trees were cleared in 2006. (Source: WECT)
An aerial view of the land after trees were cleared in 2006. (Source: WECT)

A nature park purchased under a tight deadline by Brunswick County commissioners in 2014 has no immediate future. WECT has uncovered details about the land acquisition that give insight into why some residents have spent months giving the board a piece of their mind.

These tax payers say the Holden Beach property isn't just a bad buy, but that it's also unethical.

The 35 acres were purchased for $3.5 million from the county's reserves. In early 2014, the land was owned by Sweetwater Investment's LLC of which then-Chairman Phil Norris had been an owner of.

Norris suggested the land to the board saying he had been severed from the property for "over a year," yet residents counter there was an obvious conflict of interest. Up until May 7, when the land was presented to the Board, Norris' name was still listed on Sweetwater's annual business reports filed with the Secretary of State.

Despite his past involvement, commissioners began negotiating with Sweetwater's current owner, who claimed the land appraised for more than $7 million.

The tax value of the property during negotiations was around $1.7 million (based on 2011 valuations). Brunswick County did not seek out their own appraisal.

Commissioner Marty Cooke moved to approve the purchase of 34.88 acres of Holden Beach land from Sweetwater using $3,510,000.00 from the fund balance during an agenda meeting November 14.

Commissioners Cooke, Norris, Phillips and Williams all voted in favor. The single "nay" from Sykes.

When word of the acquisition got out, residents pushed back. They say the vote of a major land purchase at an agenda meeting, not the standard monthly meeting that is heavily advertised, was questionable.

Eyebrows were also raised over the timing of the vote and Norris' term. The agenda meeting was his last day as chairman before his term expired. Residents feel allowing him to vote on his own former business investment was unethical.

By December, residents were making a line to the lectern at board meetings to complain. The county was aware they could still back out of the deal with only a $1,000 deposit loss.

The Board told staff to notify Smith they were seeking a postponement on the purchase and they would not be closing on December 31 if he said "no." Meeting minutes did not detail what happened when Smith heard the news. WECT has learned that according to the county manager, Smith insisted they had a valid contract and his attorneys would be moving forward.

A special meeting before the closing was called on December 15 to address public push back. The purchase was voted on again in open session and confirmed. Only Sykes and Thompson voted "no" - the only two commissioners who responded to WECT's requests for an interview.

In early 2015, the State Bureau of Investigation began looking into allegations against Norris, that he had made money off the deal.

The SBI did not answer how long their investigation lasted, nor did the agency draft a final report. SBI officials said they could not discuss specifics of the investigation or release documents involved.

WECT specifically asked if financial records were involved, but was told that question would not be addressed.

The SBI confirmed it conducted a "limited inquiry" and provided its findings to Tammy Smith, N.C. Chief Financial Crimes Resource Prosecutor, who decided there was no criminal wrong-doing.

Brunswick County residents continue to attend board meetings to speak out against the purchase.

For now, there are no plans to do anything with the property. The 2016 budget has not set aside funding to so much as build a parking lot.

WECT reached Norris by phone on June 8 at his office. He reiterated that he had disclosed his past ownership and the county attorney concurred there was no legal issue with Norris' suggested purchase.

At the end of the call he said WECT's questions on the Holden Beach property so "late in the game" were in "poor form."

Copyright 2015 WECT. All rights reserved.