Pierceville arguments rekindled

Published 12:36 pm Wednesday, June 1, 2016

By Matt Leonard

Staff Writer

The local nonprofit Preserve Smithfield filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the town manager’s office last week after old arguments were rekindled during a committee meeting.

The request was seeking recordings of both the May 23 and May 24 Town Council committee meetings and documents discussed in closed session.

The Town Council went into closed session on May 24 to talk about the acquisition of property for the public’s purposes. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

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Mark Gay, the group’s executive director, said he had “reliable confirmation that the topic was Pierceville,” in an email to The Smithfield Times.

Town Attorney Bill Riddick said, “There is nothing to provide in response to his request.”

The FOIA request was filed the day after members of the group came to a committee meeting to talk about their progress on reaching nonprofit status.

Council member Milton Cook told Gay and Gary Ramsburg that the town decided it wasn’t worth taxpayer money to pursue investment in Pierceville.

“We as a council have decided that it’s not the town’s responsibility to maintain a house,” Cook said.

He said the only avenue the council is taking on the property is demolition by neglect, which is a part of the town’s historic district ordinance, but the process for beginning this has not been started yet.

Demolition by neglect requires a court order allowing the town to fix up a property and the owner would pay back the cost when the property sells.

Gay also said they were worried about some 60-day deadline to demolition of the property. Town Council said there is no such deadline in place.

The meeting didn’t start to become tense, though, until after Gay and Ramsburg spoke with the Town Council. Smithfield resident Carolyn Torre told the council that Cook’s comments were too abrasive.

“I’m getting this feeling of anger, especially from you, Doctor Cook,” Torre said.

Cook said if he sounded irritated it wasn’t directed at the entire group, but said he was frustrated with one member in particular after having his name “dragged through the mud.” He did not specify who the member was.

Ron Braunhardt spoke next, saying the two groups needed to work better together.

“Our group has a lack of faith that Town Council will work with us,” Braunhardt said.

This exchange comes four months after the Town Council voted on a development at Pierceville that Gay’s group lobbied hard against. The group got what they wanted — the zoning change for the development was denied by the Town Council.

But last week’s testy exchange is reminiscent of the months leading up to that vote. Last year, Council members were accused of being liars and members of Preserve Smithfield claimed to understand local ordinances better than the people enforcing them.

Last November, members of the Preserve Smithfield group were booted from a Town Council meeting by Deputy Chief Alonzo Howell. In the week leading up to the same meeting, Braunhardt and his wife, Sharla, sent an email to Mayor Carter Williams asking him to resign.

Another email that Gay sent to Williams said he didn’t have the reading comprehension to understand local zoning ordinances.

Still, last week, the Preserve Smithfield group said they wanted to work with the Town Council to achieve their goal of rebuilding the 18th century plantation house.

“Let’s do it,” Torre said. “Let’s work together.”  {/mprestriction}