Tuesday, March 5, 2024

County: Cheetah’s free parking offer is not a ‘viable permanent solution’

The county declined the Cheetah’s resolution to offer its parking space for free use during the day. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Deliberations regarding New Hanover County’s potential eminent domain purchase of Cheetah strip club continue after the county declined the club’s resolution to offer its parking spaces for free use during the day.

READ MORE: Cheetah offers county 74 parking spots ‘at no cost to the taxpayer’ to avoid eminent domain

ALSO: NHC commissioner pushes for negotiations with strip club over eminent domain

In an email obtained by Port City Daily Thursday, county spokesperson Alex Riley said the county already owns and uses 30 of the 74 parking spots Cheetah offered to share with the county on Nov. 13. 

Riley said the remaining 43 spots would fail to meet the government center’s need for additional parking and therefore wouldn’t serve as a “viable permanent solution.” However, the county still won’t answer how much parking it needs or how much it would gain from demolishing the club. The county also will not answer the number of spots currently available at its new government center, which its employees moved into in April.

Commissioners voted Nov. 6 to authorize the potential eminent domain purchase of 143 College Road for $2.3 million due to its parking needs.  

Property owner Jerry Reid told Port City Daily the Cheetah team did not previously realize the county owned 30 of its 74 spots when it offered a solution to share its parking lot.

Riley said the county did not obtain the spots from the club, located along the fenceline between the two properties. The county bought the land where the spots are located in 2002, located within the parcel of the property constituting the government center. 

People have parked at the Cheetah lot during the day in the past, according to Reid, but it was not an issue and he’s never had anyone towed; the spots along the fenceline of the club also are occasionally used.

The county has not given Cheetah an estimate of how many more parking spaces it needs, either, Reid said, but the club continues to offer its available spots for free. 

Reid recently hired Brooks Pierce, the same law firm representing the property’s tenants, to better coordinate negotiations with the county. He said he hopes to avoid a lawsuit but the Cheetah team plans to exercise its legal right to maintain the location.

“We’re fighting the fight to stay there,” Reid said.

The Cheetah owner described the club’s location as a prime spot, among the first businesses seen when driving into Wilmington off I-40. He said it would be difficult to find an equivalent location, and argued coordinating with the city and county’s different zoning regulations would pose additional difficulties to any potential move since gentlemen’s clubs are not allowed in all zoning districts.

The property owner reiterated Cheetah hasn’t faced any violations and has a good relationship with neighboring businesses. He said if the club moved to a new location the owners would have to ensure adjacent properties did not have a problem with a gentlemen’s club in the vicinity.

PCD reached out to the commissioners about an update on negotiations. Only LeAnn Pierce and Jonathan Barfield responded; though, Barfield said he did not have any new information to share.

Pierce previously told PCD she is not in favor of eminent domain and Thursday said she is continuing to advocate for negotiation with the property owners. 

According to Pierce, multiple residents have approached her to criticize the county’s decision to try and take the property via eminent domain. 

“I don’t blame them,” she said. “It’s the whole theory of: ‘If you’ll take theirs, you’ll take mine.’”

The county has been clear it’s only interested in Cheetah Club and not nearby neighbors; in an email obtained by PCD, County Manager Chris Coudriet assured Jim Grago — the property owner of nearby Ten Pin Alley and Break Time Billiards — the strip club was the only “property the county has determined is critical to its public purpose.”

Some have questioned whether the county’s interest in the property is due to the optics of being located near a strip club more than parking space. 

In September, State Treasurer Dale Folwell criticized the county for building its new government center, a public-private partnership with Cape Fear FD Stonewater  — a collaboration between Wilmington’s Cape Fear Commercial and Virginia-based FD Stonewater — in close proximity to the adult club. Cheetah lawyer Mike Barber previously told PCD he believed Folwell’s criticism “triggered” the eminent domain authorization.

A strip club was brought up in June 2020 as well by Cape Fear Commercial co-founder Brian Eckel, who guaranteed the board of commissioners a gentlemen’s club would not be allowed in the private component of the government center redevelopment. In addition to building a nearly 137,000 square foot new government center, Stonewater is constructing 256 apartment units and commercial space currently where the old government center was located.

The June 2020 minutes note: “Mr. Eckel stated that he can assure the Board a gentlemen’s club would not be allowed and is willing to work with staff to draft a list of permitted and excluded uses.”

The county and commissioner Dane Scalise denied it’s looking at the eminent domain option due to Cheetah’s controversial business model.

Pierce admitted she has received public pushback to the commissioner’s decision; she said one resident walked up to her at the beach to thank her for expressing opposition to eminent domain. Pierce added some residents mistakenly believed the action had already taken place.

“I’m in the grocery store and I’ve got people walking up to me and saying: ‘You’re the very one as a business owner that I thought would be against this and y’all took those people’s property,’” Pierce recalled. “And I have to explain the whole thing. That we didn’t take anything. There’s nothing that’s been filed or taken — the public thinks the building’s been torn down and we haven’t.”

Chair Bill Rivenbark’s Nov. 6 motion stated “the board of commissioners hereby declares its intent to exercise the county’s eminent domain authority to acquire the real property constituting New Hanover County tax parcel RO-4916-003-003-000.” The action was not on the meeting’s agenda and the property was only referred to by parcel number.

The resolution also included a $2.36 million budget amendment for the purchase of the property. It authorized Ward & Smith to serve as New Hanover County’s legal counsel on the matter. The firm sent Reid the required notice of condemnation Nov. 7, and commissioners’ approval enabled lawyers to acquire the property by eminent domain “if necessary.”

In earlier comments to PCD, Scalise emphasized the county had not filed an eminent domain lawsuit when the board approved the resolution. Scalise’s intention was only to authorize exploration of the possibility; he said he was unaware the property owner was open to voluntary negotiation. 

Pierce and Riley said commissioners would need to vote again to initiate litigation on the matter.

Pierce intends to raise the public’s concerns with the county manager, citing taxpayer frustration regarding the use of public funds for the potential purchase of Cheetah, in addition to funding the $52 million government center.

“I don’t know where it’s going to go from here, quite honestly,” Pierce said. “I mean, whatever the property owners want to do — but another thing I’m not in favor of is running up lawyer bills to keep pursuing it.”

PCD asked Riley how much the county has spent on legal expenses for Ward & Smith; the county did not respond with a figure by press.

Reid argued the county’s reliance on a law firm for communication with the club has slowed negotiation processes. Reid and Barber previously told PCD they had only communicated with county staff through legal counsel; they said they were unaware of the county’s desire to purchase the property before the Nov. 6 meeting.

“Whenever you get lawyers involved, everything becomes complicated,” he said. “If you could just get everybody in one room and sit down, you’d probably get it all solved. But you know, lawyers don’t want that because they get paid.”

Reid added the county has not offered an official deal or compromise at this point.

He also asserted the county hasn’t proven their parking needs warrant the use of eminent domain. More so, Reid continues to question why the county won’t seek additional parking on the acreage it sold to Cape Fear FD Stonewater for the mixed-use development under construction adjacent to the new government center.

“They could have solved this problem very easily,” he said. “I mean, we only have an acre, a little over an acre. They sold off seven and a half acres.”

According to June 15, 2020 commissioner meeting minutes, Eckel told the board the private development would be able to absorb overflow parking from the government center.

Folwell similarly argued parking problems should be resolved by using the property sold to Cape Fear FD Stonewater. He criticized the eminent domain authorization and raised concerns about how the development team failed to anticipate parking needs during the due diligence phase of developing the new government center.

“I think the taxpayers and the county commission needs to look at suing someone who missed the mark by such a large amount,” he told PCD.

Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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