Miscommunication creates confusion

James HowellStaff

November 7, 2012

A proposed land swap for the “Old Fields” property was delayed during a working meeting of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners because of a miscommunication between all of the parties involved – the county, the Fleetwood Volunteer Fire Department, county emergency management representatives, and the private property owner.

That miscommunication has already had an impact on the Fleetwood VFD. In 2011, the department invested $15,000 to install underground water tanks on the Old Fields property, located near 457 Clarence Lyall Road, West Jefferson, and might now be forced to remove them.

During the working meeting of the county commissioners, the discussion focused on a piece of property used by Halsey’s Diesel Service & Parts as a driveway that crosses over property owned by Ashe County.

A land swap had been offered to Steve Halsey, the business owner, which would allow the county to receive property of equal size from Halsey in exchange for the property that Halsey’s driveway crosses.

“Through no fault of his own, Halsey has been using the county’s land for the past 28 years thinking it was his,” said Dr. Pat Mitchell, Ashe County’s manager.

If Halsey chooses to proceed with the land swap, the county might build a rescue squad facility adjacent to Halsey’s business, said Mitchell. The rescue building could also be used as a voting precinct.

Halsey said he is concerned that if a rescue squad building is placed near his business’ driveway, the large trucks he services would have a difficult time getting in and out.

During the last commission meeting, Commissioner Gerald Price said he had concerns that Halsey may have been coerced in some way to participate in the deal. “Are we sure that Halsey hasn’t been met with coercion of any kind to reach this agreement?” said Price at the meeting in October.

This was confirmed during Monday’s meeting when Halsey said he felt pressure to accept the deal from a rescue representative for the region. However, Halsey said, “coerced was too strong of a word.”

Halsey said he was under the impression that if he didn’t agree to the land swap, county officials would do what they wanted with the land they owned, which could potentially harm his business.

“I feel like I’ve been pushed into it (the land swap), one way or another,” said Halsey.

At that point, Board Chairman Judy Porter Poe quickly interjected by saying “Steve, if you’re against it (the land swap) in any way, the deal is off, and that’s fine with me.”

After the meeting, Mitchell said “I think what happened was (the rescue representative) might have suggested to Halsey that a straighter property line would accommodate a rescue building better,” she said.

According to Mitchell, Halsey may have left the discussion with the impression that the rescue representative was encouraging him to follow through with the property swap.

However, the problems with the Old Fields property extend far beyond Mr. Halsey and his business.

During the last commissioners’ meeting, members from the Fleetwood VFD voiced concerns that the land swap would void the fire department’s lease on the county’s land at the Old Fields property. On Monday, more details were revealed about the situation.

In July 2011, the Fleetwood VFD leased some of the land currently owned by the county for a 99 year period with plans to install water tanks that would be filled by a nearby stream. According to Mitchell, the county told the Fleetwood VFD they should wait before they installed the tanks because the area was in the process of being surveyed.

Three months after signing the lease, the Fleetwood VFD installed the underground water tanks on the property, unknown to the county, said Mitchell. Afterward, new surveys revealed the tanks had been installed on land belonging to the N.C. Department of Transportation; not Ashe County.

Steve Craven, chief of the Fleetwood VFD, said the county wasn’t completely forthcoming with much-needed information.

According to Craven, Patty Gambill, the county’s emergency management coordinator, told the Fleetwood VFD they shouldn’t install the water tanks due to “discrepancies with an adjoining property owner,” said Craven.

Craven said the Fleetwood VFD interpreted that statement to mean the fire department needed to get permission to install the tanks from Halsey, who, they believed, was the only adjoining property owner.

Once Halsey agreed, the Fleetwood VFD installed the underground tanks, at an investment of about $15,000, according to Craven.

However, the adjoining property owner Gambill referred to was actually the NC DOT, said Craven after the meeting.

Craven said the Fleetwood VFD wasn’t aware the DOT owned a portion of the Old Fields property because it didn’t appear on their original lease issued by the county. “We assumed the lease was correct,” said Craven.

“If we had the entire story from the beginning, we would have done things differently,” said Craven.

Because the DOT plans to widen U.S. 221, the tanks may need to be removed in order to complete the project.

The Fleetwood VFD asserted the county shouldn’t be involved; that the Fleetwood VFD should deal with the DOT themselves because they have a monetary investment in the land (the water tanks) and the county doesn’t.

When the property swap was first mentioned, their were discussions among county officials to place a rescue squad building on the county’s newly-acquired land, an asset the county may need with the widening of U.S. 221, said Mitchell.

Poe asked the Fleetwood VFD to forgo installation of any new equipment on the property until everyone has a better idea of where the property lines are.

Several options were offered to resolve the issues at the Old Fields property during the meeting.

One option offered by Commissioner Larry Rhodes was to let Halsey buy the land from the county, if Halsey is willing. This would require the fire department’s lease to be renegotiated. Also, Commissioner Gary Roark said the county could donate the land to the Fleetwood VFD.

The county may not be allowed, legally, to use either solution offered by Rhodes and Roark, said Mitchell. Those questions will be investigated by the county’s attorney before the board of commissioner’s next meeting in two weeks, she said.

“Counties are very limited in what they give away and what they can sell to other entities, so resolving this problem will take some more research moving forward,” said Mitchell.

It’s most likely, said Mitchell, the county will leave the lease intact and have a second survey of the of the Old Fields property.