CARY — More than one year before a controversy about a proposed federal immigration office erupted, developers told town staff members that they were considering placing a 40,000-square-foot facility in a vacant supermarket near Cary neighborhoods and a major intersection.
Starting in May 2010 and as recently as January, town staffers communicated intermittently with two developers about the Kroger site. One company outlined plans for a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement office with temporary detention facilities at the site and noted the sensitive nature of the plans, while a second developer referenced federal plans for the area, according to emails obtained through a public records request.
But when anonymous fliers warned residents about the potential relocation in June, town administrators and elected officials said they didn't know anything about the proposal.
The two Cary planning department officials who received the emails didn't alert their department leaders or administrators about developers' interest at the time, Town Manager Ben Shivar said.
"In this case, there's no question that our system should have been better," said Shivar, who took responsibility for the town's oversight.
Shivar didn't learn about the correspondence until June 30 this year, about two weeks after news broke about plans for a regional immigration facility, town officials said.
Federal authorities later abandoned plans to locate the ICE facility at the vacant supermarket amid neighbors' protests and apologized for not telling Cary officials about the plans earlier. The emails indicate that the town missed an early warning about the proposal.
"In my mind, mistakes were made," said Mark Howard, who organized neighbors in opposition to the plan. "Some of these things that are left to interpretation at the staff level require more oversight."
Now, Cary is considering creating centralized files that could help town planners better track developers' inquiries about specific lots. The town also will train its staff to better recognize potentially controversial issues, Shivar said.
No specifics about the changes were available yet, but town officials said they are also exploring ways to keep the public more informed.
The U.S. General Services Administration, which locates property for federal agencies, first asked developers in late 2009 to propose locations for a large immigration office in Cary, Morrisville or a western sliver of Raleigh.
The federal government provided no notice to local towns, but developers soon began asking Cary for guidance about the Kroger lot.
On May 11, 2010, E. Brice Shearburn, of JDL Castle Corp., wrote an email to Cary planner Dan Matthys to say that his company was interested in converting the former Kroger store to a government office with secure parking and temporary detention cells. He warned of the project's potential to agitate its neighbors near N.C. 55 and High House Road.
"Unfortunately, the perception of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement as the agency charged with immigration management, deportation and interdiction creates potential barriers to public acceptance," he wrote.
In an email dated May 17, 2010, Matthys told Shearburn that the project likely couldn't proceed unless the Cary council changed the town's development rules during a public hearing.
Matthys had consulted with associate planning director Ricky Barker about JDL's inquiry, the email indicates, but neither apparently brought the issue to Planning Director Jeff Ulma.
JDL dropped its interest in the site that day - the company doesn't pursue such changes, Shearburn explained in an interview last week.
A day later, Acquest Development began to ask about the site. A lawyer representing the company, Beth Trahos, exchanged emails with senior planner Debra Grannan to determine whether Acquest would need to request a rezoning or change to town plans before building government offices at the Kroger site.
At the time, Trahos didn't specifically outline Acquest's project proposal in writing. But later, in a Jan. 16 email to Grannan, she mentioned the federal government's "interest in redeveloping the Kroger for offices for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement."
"They were aware that we were talking about an ICE facility," Trahos said in an interview last week. "Within the town, I don't think there was necessarily communication between the departments about what was going on."
Grannan replied to Trahos that the town's development rules for the area would allow for the requested 40,000-plus square feet of government offices - a statement that contradicted what the town told JDL seven months earlier.
The contradiction stems from town planners' differing interpretations.
The issue then went dark until June, when a ream of rumors and concerned calls from residents sent the town scurrying.
Town staff, residents and council members called members of Congress, real estate developers and federal employees up and down the eastern seaboard as they traced the story back to its roots.
"We want information so we can respond to our citizens," Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said late in June. "They ask us questions, and we don't have the answers."
Earlier knowledge of the federal plans would have allowed the town to fight the proposal earlier and more efficiently, said Susan Moran, a town spokeswoman. But the employees involved didn't violate any town rules, officials said.
Had the flier not derailed the process, federal authorities may have selected the Kroger or another Cary site for the office.
Town administrators only learned about the early correspondence after the town manager instructed planning staff to search their records for traces of the project.
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