Bogged down: Jonathan Creek project getting messy
Problems with moist soil are mucking up what seemed at the time to be a quick, cheap and easy accouterment for an enticing economic development asset, spurring frustration from the public, political candidates and commissioners — frustration that all flows downhill.
“I want the public to know that we did our part but they haven’t done their part,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley during the board meeting April 16. “The soil we were supposed to get, we didn’t get.”
Ensley was referring to 25,000 cubic yards of dirt the county expected to receive for $1 a cubic yard from the construction site of a new grocery store and place at the county-owned Jonathan Creek site in anticipation of future development. Turns out, 25 percent of it is too wet to be compacted, and is thus unusable.
“It’s unfortunate it turned out this way,” Haywood County Program Administrator David Francis told commissioners of the Jonathan Creek Soil Reclamation Project April 16.
The dialogue came as Francis asked commissioners for a $5,500 change order in a December contract with Bunnell-Lammons Engineering contract that would allow the firm to test soils at a different site for possible use in replacing the unusable soil. County documents show the site as having between 25,000 and 75,000 cubic yards to offer.
Francis’ request met with unanimous approval by commissioners.
One small consolation is that the $5,500 will come out of the project’s contingency budget of $12,247 and thus requires no additional outlay; however, in the event no contingencies occur in any given project, that contingency budget becomes something budgeted but not actually appropriated.
“It’s frustrating for me as well,” said Commissioner Brandon Rogers, who added that the county had jumped through hoops to get the project moving quickly last November so as not to impede construction and foul Publix’s use-it-or-lose-it offer.
News last summer of a new Publix grocery store coming to Waynesville’s Russ Avenue was welcomed as another economic development win for the town’s commercial corridor.
An additional benefit of the project was that an old hotel on the site that Waynesville Police have said was a constant source of problems would have to be demolished.
The site then provided what appeared to be a triple stroke of good fortune when Haywood Commissioners struck a deal to accept from the site a surplus of dirt, dirt cheap.
That dirt was intended for a county-owned site on Jonathan Creek ripe for economic development and would have raised eight acres of land by four feet in elevation, thus removing it from the flood plain and making the 22-acre tract more attractive to develop.
The site’s attractiveness became an action item for commissioners last fall, just as the county moved towards a more regional approach to economic development by contracting out many of its economic development functions to the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, which is now charged with marketing Haywood opportunities alongside its own.
Commissioners decided to stop leasing it to a local farmer in November, essentially taking an irrevocable step towards generating some return on the long languishing parcel, acquired before the recession and intended as a sporting complex but ending up mothballed into obsolescence.
Among the best opportunities for development in Haywood County, the Jonathan Creek site is large, has sewer, water and electric, is somewhat scenic and is less than three miles from Interstate 40 right in the heart of one of the county’s few population clusters.
The Jonathan Creek site compares favorably to similar setups in Buncombe County, where developable land is at a premium, underscoring the importance of the soil reclamation project.
Although the already-budgeted $5,500 and slight delay in shovel-readiness are relatively minor in the scope of the county’s roughly $75 million budget and the parcel’s decade-long underutilization, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t become contentious.
The Jonathan Creek Soil Reclamation Project has become unexpectedly troublesome on a number of associated fronts.
Local government watchdog Monroe Miller began making an aggressive series of public records requests related to the project around the beginning of the year.
In long emails with dozens of recipients, Miller engaged in a protracted back-and-forth with county officials over which records were produced and which weren’t, which records existed and which records didn’t, and what all of it meant.
As the string of 70-some emails dragged on, the tone became increasingly antagonistic on the part of Miller, which then prompted the county to update and revise its public records request policy.
That culminated in a rare public admonishment of Miller by Francis during a commission meeting Feb. 19.
Miller has been an early critic of what he calls the “James Weaver ‘Kirk’ Kirkpatrick III Super Duper Sports Complex” and accused Francis of wrongdoing in connection with the project, something Francis vehemently denies. Kirk Kirkpatrick is the county commission chairman.
During the April 16 commission meeting, Francis and commissioners opined that the grocery store developer, MAB American Management, or its subcontractor, didn’t perform enough soil testing in enough areas on the parcel.
When asked about legal action related to the project, Interim County Manager Joel Mashburn said April 17, “I guess anything is possible, but we certainly hope it doesn’t get to that point.”
Luckily, only one load of bad soil was delivered to the site, but the $5,500 contingency may be only the beginning of the consequences for the county, which won’t have to pay for the unusable soil but will have to pay for replacement soil, probably at far more than $1 a cubic yard.
That’s now become an election issue, with more than one candidate in the May 8 Republican Primary Election voicing concern over the project (see page 18).
Four Republicans are fighting for three spots on the November General Election ballot to oppose three Democrats — including current board Chairman Kirkpatrick and Jonathan Creek business owner and incumbent Mike Sorrells — for three available seats.
The third seat currently belongs to Democrat Bill Upton, who isn’t seeking reelection. Even if Kirkpatrick and Sorrells are able to successfully defend their seats, if Upton’s seat doesn’t go to the third Democratic Candidate Danny Davis, Republicans will take over as the majority on the commission.