Commissioners Put Brakes on Bolton Property

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Columbus County School Board Chairman Ronnie Strickland.

An appraisal will be done on the proposed Bolton site for a new eastern Columbus K-8 school before the property is purchased.

Commissioners voted to share the cost of an appraisal with the county schools after a testy hour-long discussion with School Board Chair Ronnie Strickland.  Superintendent Eddie Beck was out of town.

The county schools presented the proposal to commissioners at their regular meeting last week. Construction of the school will be paid for using $52 million in state lottery funds, with a five percent match from the county. The funds for the property acquisition will come from Article 44 funds, which must be approved by commissioners.

The property at the intersection of N.C. 214 and N.C. 211 has water, sewer, high speed internet and is central to the eastern school district, Strickland said. He also noted that the county looked at five different properties, including land behind East Columbus High School, but the Bolton property was the best cost-per-student. A plot that was available as a donation was not suitable due to wetlands and the need to run water and sewer for “two miles” at a cost of $750,000 per mile.

Strickland said the schools are trying to avoid mistakes made during the construction of South and East Columbus high schools, while still being fiscally responsible.

“The complaint you hear about those schools is that they are not centrally located,” he said.

The Bolton location solves the location problem, Strickland said, and will provide a more attractive school to new residents of the east end. He noted that the county is already losing students to Brunswick County from Acme, Delco and Riegelwood because parents don’t want to drive. With the anticipated growth in the eastern end of the county, Strickland said, the school system will be better equipped to serve students of the entire district.

Several commissioners questioned the speed that the purchase was moving forward, and the lack of a formal appraisal to determine if the county was getting a fair price.

Commissioner Giles “Buddy” Byrd said he did not feel like the school system had down its due diligence in researching the property and making an offer. The land has a county property evaluation – which does not reflect market value – of $59,400. Byrd also questioned whether the schools had considered the inconvenience to parents who might have students at the two different school campuses, which are around five miles apart.

He insisted that appropriate land was available closer to East Columbus High, which would allow centralization of the schools for the east.

Strickland countered that since the county schools own the wastewater transfer station at ECHS, they would be responsible for expanding the plant to accommodate the new school. He also said that school officials understood a housing development would be built there if the school was constructed by ECHS, and the schools would then have to further expand the wastewater system.

Byrd and Board Chairman Ricky Bullard both questioned the difficulties parents would face if they have children at each school who must be dropped off. Strickland said the school system is considering alternating start times to cut down on timing conflicts.

“I drove between East Columbus High and Bolton last night,” Strickland said. “When you turn onto 214 at Hill’s, there’s a sign that says Bolton is five miles away.”

Commissioner Laverne Coleman noted that he supports the location of the school as being central to the district, as well as helping the county prepare for anticipated growth in the extreme eastern part of the county.

“I talked to a parent from my area who drives 500 miles a week taking her children to school,” he said.

Commissioners appeared surprised that the schools had not gotten a formal appraisal of the property before making the proposal. Beck said the schools had compared prices between the other properties as well as neighboring parcels, then negotiated through several offers and counteroffers with the property owners.

Strickland said school administration had been working on the project since March, and only recently collected enough information to present to the school board and commissioners. He noted that construction must begin on the new school within two years of the state funding being approved, and that the schools needed to “avoid another Tabor City situation.” The Tabor City school was put on hold after samples of dirt from the site were found to be unacceptable for building. The county was forced to haul tons of fill to the property and allow it to settle for a year before construction could begin, resulting in construction delays as well as higher costs.

“There are permits we have to get, core samples, and other tests,” Strickland explained. “There are a lot of steps we have to take before we can build.”

A testy exchange developed when Byrd and Coleman suggested the county should have the property appraised. Strickland expressed concern that additional delays might force the county to return the $52 million to the state if the construction deadline was not met.

County Manager Eddie Madden noted that the school board could pursue the project without the assistance of the commissioners, if the schools had sufficient funds to meet the match and pay for the property.

“If the schools need (the county’s) assistance, it would require an appraisal,” he said.

“Is an appraisal unreasonable? Is that too much to ask for?” Bullard asked Strickland.

Byrd made a motion, seconded by commissioner Barbara Featherson, to split the cost of an appraisal with the school system. The motion passed unanimously.

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Jefferson Weaver is the Managing Editor of Columbus County News and he can be reached at (910) 914-6056, (910) 632-4965, or by email at [email protected].