The Town of Archer Lodge says it followed the law in agreeing to pay a town councilman $450,000 for 29 acres of land.
Local-government experts, however, say that might not be the case.
The Town Council agreed on Monday to buy land owned by Councilman Carlton Vinson. It’s one of two tracts the town will purchase for a park across from Archer Lodge Middle School.
But Frayda Bluestein, a professor in the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill, said the only lawful way a town can buy land from a council member is to condemn the land and have a judge approve the deal.
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State law prohibits public officials from deriving direct benefit from contracts they help make or administer.
Town Attorney Chip Hewett said Vinson recused himself from any dealings in the purchase of his land, including voting. But that doesn’t exempt him from state law governing conflicts of interest, according to N.C. statutes.
The relevant statute says councilmen are considered involved in making a contract if the council they serve on takes action on the deal, regardless if they recuse themselves.
The law does provide an exception that allows councils to buy land from a council member. Under the exception, after condemning a property, a council can seek a consent judgment from the courts.
Hewett said the council knew about the condemnation exception. However, he said the council did not discuss that option at any length.
Councilman Mark Wilson, the lone councilman to vote against the deal, said he couldn’t recall the council discussing the condemnation option at all. Vinson said he, too, wasn’t aware of the exception.
If it went to condemnation, Hewett said, the town would have an appraisal done, and Vinson would likely get his own appraisal too.
“It would be a balancing act of what the jury determines is the accurate price,” Hewett said.
“Plus, you’re spending a good amount of money on experts and attorney fees,” he added.
Turning to Bluestein’s opinion, Hewett said he doesn’t think it changes anything.
The state’s Local Government Commission, he said, will make sure the deal passes statutory muster. The LGC will have to approve the loan the town plans to seek to help pay for the land purchase.
Wilson said he’d like the council to discuss the condemnation exception at its next meeting.
‘Conflicts of interest’
Town leaders say they decided on the property after considering several others, primarily land next to Archer Lodge Middle School. The land the town is buying – 42 acres in all – is across the road from the school, at the corner of Wendell and Wall roads.
While Vinson recused himself from discussions involving his land, he was sitting on the council when it mulled other tracts for the park.
Wilson, the councilman who voted against the deal, said like other council members, Vinson was involved in negotiations over the land next to the middle school. He said that allowed Vinson to learn what other landowners wanted for their properties and use that information to his advantage.
“I think there are conflicts of interest,” Wilson said. He added that while the council was considering the land next to the school, the council received documents that identified Vinson’s tract as a secondary option.
Wilson said he has no problem with the town buying land from a councilman. But he saw “ethics issues” with the decision because of Vinson’s knowledge of other tracts the town negotiated for.
Speaking during a public hearing Monday on the town’s budget, resident Debbie Barnes agreed. “He’s a seller, he’s on the Town Council, and he’s the budget officer,” she said. “That just says conflict of interest, and I’m pointing that out.”
“I agree we need a park; I’m not saying don’t buy the land,” Barnes added. “I’m saying it represents in my head a big red flag.”
State statutes prohibit councilmen from misusing confidential information for financial gain. It’s unclear how much information on the other tracts councilmen received or discussed; meetings on the land search have been in closed session.
Vinson said he was careful to avoid a conflict of interest. He said he only considered selling after his fellow councilmen approached him.
The land has been in his family for generations and was passed down to him. Vinson lives on the property and would continue to reside next to the park.
The price he set on his land was similar to what the Johnston County Board of Education paid for the Archer Lodge Middle School property nearly a decade ago, Vinson said. The school board paid $15,500 an acre for the 40-acre tract in 2006.
“I just basically said, ‘Look, I know what the property across the road went for nine years ago. This is what I want for mine,’” Vinson said. “I said, ‘If I can get that, we’ve got a deal.’”
Price exceeds appraisal
Hewett said the owners of the land next to the school never came back to the town with a specific price for the roughly 28 acres. But they told the town it would be more than $20,000 an acre, the attorney said.
Mayor Mike Gordon said that was more than the town wanted to pay. So the council approached Vinson, who started negotiating at around $17,500 an acre.
While an appraisal valued Vinson’s property at roughly $8,500 an acre, the town agreed to a purchase price that was about 79 percent higher at nearly $15,200 an acre.
The town is paying $101,000 for the other 13 acres that will make up the park, That’s about $7,600 an acre. That tract, owned by Iris Wall Lusk, appraised for about $2,400 an acre.
Councilmen said they tried to get other landowners to sell but either ran into higher prices or unwilling sellers. Hewett said Lusk was already interested in selling, and since her land abuts Vinson’s, it made sense to ask him if he was interested.
Vinson said he thinks he could have gotten more money for his land from a private developer. He had planned to sell eventually.
“Whether the price was fair or not, it wasn’t my decision to make on behalf of the town, which is why I recused myself,” Vinson said.
It was important for the town to pick a site as soon as possible.
Town residents have asked for more recreation options in recent years, and Archer Lodge currently pays the Archer Lodge Community Center to run baseball and soccer leagues.
The town also needed to lock down a site to pursue an N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant, which could offset part of the purchase price.
The grant would go only toward the purchase of the park land. Money to build ball fields, tennis courts and walking trails will have to come from somewhere else.
Most likely, the town will pursue a loan to pay for the remaining cost of the land, according to the purchase agreement town leaders approved.
If the town decides to backtrack and pursue condemnation through the courts, town leaders could vote to nullify their previous vote, said Norma Houston, another local-government expert in the UNC School of Government.
“The important thing for them is to not move forward with this in any way,” Houston said.
“Certainly at their next meeting, they can undo this vote, vote to initiate the condemnation proceedings, instruct their attorney to get with a judge,” she said.
Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104