Smithfield: Opinion

Archer Lodge must rescind land deal

We have no qualms with the Archer Lodge Town Council buying land from a council member. In a town that small, doing business with someone on or close to the council seems more likely than not.

But in agreeing to pay hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to one of its own, we’d prefer the council follow the letter of the law. (And before councilmen argue that they hope to make the purchase largely with a grant, those dollars are tax dollars too.)

Town attorney Chip Hewett said the council acted legally in agreeing to pay Councilman Carlton Vinson $450,000 for 29 acres near Archer Lodge Middle School. But two experts at the UNC School of Government say otherwise. Under North Carolina law, the experts told this newspaper, Archer Lodge can acquire the land only by condemning it and letting a judge decide a fair-market price.

The town did not take that route. It should, if for no other reason than to put to rest any doubts about the legality of the deal.

The condemnation route would also help Archer Lodge taxpayers feel better about some particulars of the deal. For example, the town attorney said he briefly discussed the condemnation option with the Town Council. But two councilmen who spoke to reporter Nash Dunn said they could recall no such discussion. So either councilmen knew about the condemnation option and forgot about it, or the town attorney was mistaken in his recollection. Council members will forgive taxpayers who say that taints the deal.

More important, the price the council agreed to, $450,000, is nearly 79 percent more than the appraised value of $246,500. Council members say asking prices for land in Archer Lodge have ballooned since the Johnston County Board of Education paid $15,000 an acre for the land for Archer Lodge Middle School. Maybe so, but again, council members will forgive taxpayers for wanting an impartial judge to decide the fair price for land to be paid for with tax dollars.

In surveys, Archer Lodge residents have said they want more recreation opportunities, and to its credit, the Town Council is responding to residents’ wishes. But we doubt the council wants to create the impression that it’s lavishing tax dollars on one of its own. Pursuing condemnation would make sure no one is left with that impression. No doubt, that’s one reason the condemnation law is on the books.