After first approving the purchase, the town council has decided against buying land belonging to one of its own board members.
Last month, the council agreed to pay Councilman Carlton Vinson $450,000 for 29 acres of his land. It was one of two tracts the town agreed to buy for a park across from Archer Lodge Middle School.
But despite Vinson’s recusing himself from the vote, the deal appeared to run afoul of North Carolina law.
In June, two scholars at the UNC School of Government said the only way Archer Lodge could buy Vinson’s land was to condemn the property and have a judge approve the deal, including the price.
On Monday, the council reversed course, voting to terminate the contract and pull its application for an N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant to help pay for the purchase.
If the land deal was on shaky legal ground, the grant could have been at risk, Mayor Mike Gordon said.
“In (light) of everything that happened, I think council decided to back up and punt,” Gordon said. “We need to slow down and revisit this.”
Condemnation is not something Archer Lodge has done before, Gordon said. It might end up being the route the town pursues, but for now, the council is taking a step back, he said.
Vinson’s land and another 13 acres owned by Iris Lusk were among several tracts Archer Lodge considered. However, council members said the other land was either overpriced or not for sale.
“There’s possibly some other land that’s coming available now, we hear of,” Gordon said. “So we’re going to slow down and see which way to go.”
Last fall, Archer Lodge made picking a park site a priority. Its goal was to have land, a preliminary site plan and a recreation master plan lined up by early February, the deadline for getting in on the current grant cycle.
The town met that deadline, applying for a $150,000 grant. The state has not yet released which towns will get grants this year.
State law prohibits public officials from deriving direct benefit from contracts they help make or administer.
While Vinson said he recused himself from dealings for the purchase of his land, that doesn’t exempt him from state law governing conflicts of interest, according to North Carolina statutes.
The law says council members are considered involved in making a contract if the council they serve on takes action on the deal, even if they recuse themselves.
Archer Lodge councilmen say they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong.
Vinson, who also recused himself from the vote to terminate the agreement, said he thinks the council made the right decision in rescinding the deal.
“Our presumption was that we had done everything the correct way,” Vinson said. “Come to find out, that was not the case.”
The land has been in Vinson’s family for generations and was passed down to him. He said he considered selling only after his fellow councilmen approached him.
Vinson said he’s still interested in selling and thinks the price tag of $450,000, or about $15,200 an acre, is fair. 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.
At the corner of Wendell and Wall roads, across from the school, Vinson’s land abuts an intersection with a traffic signal and turn lane. Councilmen have said those are features the town wouldn’t have to pay for.
“The fact remains that we still need a park, we still need the facilities, we still need the space,” Vinson said. “I think the council, as a whole, plans to look into all the options to see what’s fair.”
The town council met in closed session Monday before voting to terminate the land deal.
Mark Wilson, the only councilman who voted against buying Vinson and Lusk’s land, asked why the discussion needed to be behind closed doors.
“Why do we need a closed session on the purchase of property when it’s well known what is going on?” he asked.
The mayor responded that “not everything” had been made public.
Wilson has said Vinson was privy to negotiations over other tracts of land the council considered. He said that allowed Vinson to learn what other landowners wanted for their properties and to use that information to his advantage.