By Eliot Duke
Dunn Daily Record
LILLINGTON – The town of Lillington decided to hold off on doing any short-term agreements with Harnett County until language regarding a proposed property swap is worked out.
Lillington commissioners seemed ready to sign off on the property swap with Harnett County Schools at the beginning of the month, but elected to hit the pause button after the official contract arrived and included language the board didn’t feel comfortable with.
Town Manager Joseph Jeffries told the board on Monday morning the county would like to work out lease agreements for the veterans services building and the warehouse on Alexander Drive, two Lillington properties involved in the swap, until the contract dispute is settled.
Mayor Glenn McFadden felt too much uncertainty clouded the agreement and the town should avoid any such agreements for the time being.
“I’m of the opinion we don’t do any short-term leases until this is worked out,” McFadden said. “It’s created a lot of confusion. I want to be helpful to the school board, but I don’t really like the thought of allowing them into the building until this is worked out. My suggestion would be if there is an issue is to get it rectified pretty quickly so we can move forward with this first step.”
Language causing the concerns stemmed from how soon the properties involved actually would change hands. As part of the agreement, Lillington would give land on East McNeill Street to the county that it would use to construct a new HCS bus garage. Lillington receives the property where the current bus garage sits, but a recent study found a contamination problem with the land the town would like to see addressed.
“There is contamination on site that we discovered,” said Jeffries. “We wanted to discuss that and get a plan of action for when the property did transfer … there would be the possibility they would participate or hold the town harmless. These are parameters that were part of this whole agreement when I approached the county and the board of education about this property swap. We have some concerns regarding some of the parameters of the agreement. I’ve expressed those concerns to the county.”
Uncertainty surrounding the future of a potential new bus garage construction also created concerns. According to the contract, the county agrees to fund construction of the new bus garage on East McNeill Street within five to seven years of the agreement. The Board of Education will stay in its current garage – set to go to Lillington – until it’s constructed.
The open-ended situation left Lillington leaders wanting a more concrete time frame on when the properties would be conveyed to the city.
“One of the things we requested as part of this property swap was that the property would transfer in five years with a option to extend it to seven years, as initially proposed by town of Lillington,” Jeffries said. “When we did the framework, we did the resolution that all the parties agreed to, it just said the funding would be available in five to seven years, which is a high level agreement. What we hoped to do was refine that agreement in the contract and spell out the parameters for the transfer and when it would happen. The county wanted to leave the contract where it would be funded in five years and the transfer would occur once the construction was complete. That could extend out 10 years or more. We were concerned about that.”
McFadden said leadership positions change on elected boards and leaving something that already is causing concern open to interpretation moving forward is an issue. With two obstacles currently facing the deal, McFadden felt a side agreement with the county wasn’t in the town’s best interest.
“I wouldn’t mind doing [a short-term agreement] if we thought something was coming forward,” McFadden said. “But at this point, when you change the contract after a year of negotiations on something as big as on site contamination and the day when we will have access to the property, that’s a pretty big hurdle to overcome. Our fear is they say it would be funded in five to seven years, but you get different boards and things can change and we want that in the contract. I think there is some confusion. We want to be held harmless for the contamination of the school bus garage and we want a firm date for when we would gain access to it. We look at it as all of our property is being utilized and there are time lines on that, but not on this. We just want to firm that up.”
Jeffries said he reached out to Interim County Manager George Wood to discuss the contract but has yet to set up a meeting. The extent of the contamination at the bus garage, which houses fuel tanks and currently has land use restrictions in place, Jeffries said, is not yet fully known. One idea proposed to commissioners focused on doing the land swap in phases, with the third phase focused on addressing the contamination. Jeffries said the town would expect assistance in cleaning up the contamination.