Planned DMV site in Rocky Mount has flooded in past. Should the state be worried about that?

NC DMV headquarters plans to leave Raleigh for Rocky Mount

The North Carolina state Division of Motor Vehicles plans to move hundreds of workers and its headquarters from its long-time home on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh to Rocky Mount.
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The North Carolina state Division of Motor Vehicles plans to move hundreds of workers and its headquarters from its long-time home on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh to Rocky Mount.

Soon after the news broke that the state Division of Motor Vehicles planned to move its headquarters to a campus in this city an hour east of Raleigh, people began circulating a photo of the buildings surrounded by floodwaters.

The aerial photo was taken in September 1999 after Hurricane Floyd dumped more than a foot of rain on already saturated ground and sent the Tar River over its banks. Record flooding inundated large parts of the city and got inside what was then the headquarters of the Hardee’s restaurant chain on North Church Street.

Critics of the DMV’s move worry about the impact on its more than 400 employees, who mostly live in Wake County, and on the Southeast Raleigh neighborhood where the agency’s headquarters has been an anchor for more than 60 years. That the new buildings might be prone to flooding only adds to their feelings that leasing the property because the rent is low is a bad idea.

“I’m very concerned about the state taking on that level of risk for a campus that is supposed to house the headquarters of a state agency,” said Robert Broome, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. “I think this risk should not be downplayed and should in fact be a disqualifier for this location.”

But supporters of the Rocky Mount site say Hurricane Floyd was an extraordinary event, not likely to be repeated. The two recent hurricanes to devastate Eastern North Carolina — Matthew in 2016 and Florence last fall — did not send floodwaters into the buildings, said David Farris, president and CEO of the Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce.

Steve Stroud of NAI Carolantic Realty, the firm that is brokering the lease deal, said the possibility of a major flood is unlikely and shouldn’t stop the DMV from taking advantage of a good deal.

“If you used that argument, you’d eliminate all of Eastern North Carolina,” Stroud said.

The buildings the DMV plans to lease are in the 100-year flood plain, meaning that every year there’s about a 1 percent chance that they will flood, according to Will Deaton, the city’s director of development services. Being in the 100-year flood plain is not uncommon in Rocky Mount, Deaton wrote in an email, and “Staff is not aware of significant flooding for that property.”

Broome notes that the state’s flood mapping program provides more detailed information about the flood risk, at www.flood.nc.gov, which lists the property’s flood probability as “high.” The website lists the chances that each of the six buildings in the proposed DMV complex will flood in the next 30 years, ranging from 17 to 94 percent.

“I would think as much as the state has put into recovery efforts for flood damage from hurricanes, the last thing we should be looking at are areas that are designated as a high flood risk when we are looking to site state agencies,” Broome said.

Floyd caused the worst flooding in the Rocky Mount’s history. According to the National Weather Service, the Tar River crested at 31.66 feet here after the storm, more than 10 feet above flood stage and surpassing the previous record set after Hurricane Fran by nearly 6 feet.

The closest the Tar has come to the record since then was after Hurricane Matthew, when the river crested at 28.73 feet. Aerial photos show water in the parking lot of the old Hardee’s complex after Matthew, but Farris says it did not get inside.

N.C. Department of Transportation officials don’t seem worried about the prospects that the new DMV headquarters might flood. Asked about it on a conference call with the Council of State, the committee of statewide elected officials who must approve the lease, Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon said flood risk might be a good reason not the buy the property but shouldn’t preclude a lease.

“It only flooded one time in its history, on the first floor,” Trogdon told council members.

The DMV doesn’t have an option to buy offices for its headquarters anyway. Last summer, the General Assembly directed the agency to solicit proposals to lease office space in Wake or surrounding counties, with a deadline to be out of its current complex on New Bern Avenue by the fall of 2020.

The agency received a dozen proposals, all in Wake or Research Triangle Park except the one in Rocky Mount. NCDOT officials have acknowledged the hardship the move might have on employees but say they feel obligated under state law to accept the lowest bid that meets its space needs.

DMV has asked the Council of State to approve a 15-year lease, at an average of $2,053,635 a year, with options to extend the lease another 10 years.

DMV must leave its current offices because of problems with asbestos and fire safety. DMV employees like Debra Dunston worry that the history of flooding at the Rocky Mount site means there could be lingering health problems there.

“It’s bound to have got mold in it, because mold comes with flood waters,” said Dunston, who has worked for DMV since 1997 and doesn’t relish a two-hour round-trip commute each day.

But Stroud of Carolantic and others note that after Hardee’s left the complex in 1999 that another hometown company, Centura Bank, moved in and continued to upgrade the buildings after its merger with Royal Bank of Canada in 2001. RBC and its successor, PNC Financial Services Group, used the buildings until 2016, when the current owners, Scott McLaughlin and David Hicks, bought them.

The banks took good care of the buildings, as have McLaughlin and Hicks, Stroud said.

“They have impeccably maintained that property,” he said.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.