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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Pender County commissioners block plan to remove debris on private, unpaved roads

At a Pender County Board of Commissioners meeting Monday night, a motion to begin picking up debris failed to get support from the board, although FEMA recently approved such debris removal projects, stating they were eligible for reimbursement.

One of the piles of house debris on U.S. 53 just northeast of Burgaw near the Northeast Cape Fear River. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
One of the large piles of house debris beside the unpaved Cape Fear Drive where it meets N.C. 53, just northeast of Burgaw near the Northeast Cape Fear River. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

BURGAW — Weeks of ambiguity concerning whether Pender County will remove debris from private, unpaved roads was resolved Monday night when a motion to fund debris collection failed at the County Commissioners meeting.

RELATED: Pender County commissioner says county has been given permission for debris pickup on unpaved roads

The decision came after a 40-minute discussion among commissioners and county officials centered around the depletion of the fund balance — essentially the county’s savings account — due to $17.5 million in Florence-related expenses, and questions concerning eligibility for FEMA reimbursement.

“We’re going to be red-lining soon,” Commissioner Jackie Newton said.

Financial concerns; FEMA support

“Based on the numbers, our manager and finance director recommended we not obligate the county to any additional storm-related expenses, nor expand the scope of any current contracts,” Commissioner David Piepmeyer said in his remarks against the motion.

Since Hurricane Florence caused widespread flooding across the county nearly two months ago, the fund balance has been reduced to approximately $900,000, according to Piepmeyer.

At one point in the discussion Steve Clark, a federal grant consultant hired by the county, clarified to Chairman George Brown that FEMA recently expanded the scope of relief operations eligible for reimbursement to include the removal of debris along unpaved roads.

“Let’s set the money aside for a second. Are you saying that we’re taking no more risk going down a private dirt road or gravel road than we would going down a private paved road?” Brown asked.

“Correct, FEMA sees it as the same type of road, as long as there is no guard or gate,” Clark replied.

Health and environmental concerns

Although acknowledging the county’s financial constraints, Clark pointed to possible environmental health concerns from construction and demolition [C&D) debris piles left unattended — in addition to “an outcry from the residents” concerning the presence of the piles along their roads.

“We’re looking at a lot of C&D piles. The problem that comes with that is, the longer you wait, the more likely it will become an environmental health issue,” Clark said. “And you don’t want the EPA coming in here as a result of [the county] having such an issue.”

Clark said that lead paint, asbestos, and rodents often become a concern with “massive amounts of C&D waiting to be picked up.”

3:2 split on the board

Three commissioners — Piepmeyer, Newton, and Fred McCoy — refused to back Commissioner David Williams’ motion to divert $800,000, currently designated for a future land acquisition to build a new county jail, to contribute towards the estimated $1 million required to remove debris along the county’s unpaved roads.

Williams supported his case by stating confidence in Pender County Schools’ ability to quickly repay a $4.9 million loan for mold remediation. He also referred to Emergency Director Tom Collins’ earlier estimate that the county’s current costs of debris clean-up, which is currently around $8 million, was four to five million dollars less than initial estimates.

Ultimately, though, Williams urged fellow members of the board to pass the motion because of an obligation to the county’s rural residents.

“We’re alienating a sector of people, unintentionally, by not doing it,” Williams said.

Although Brown could not second Williams’ motion as acting chairman of the board, he voiced his support for it.

“After hearing tonight’s arguments … I have agreed that I would support going down these roads, and I’m not going to sit here and be silent,” Brown said.

For Piepmeyer, the decision to strike down the motion was difficult but necessary to maintain a healthy fund balance, and to avoid placing the county “in jeopardy of raising taxes in the near future to pay for this decision.”

“We should make that tough decision now, and not risk driving the county into becoming fiscally un-solid,” Piepmeyer said. “And not put further strain on the FEMA reimbursement process as we are just one of many entities standing in line. We do not know when or how much we will be reimbursed.”

Resident frustration

Jeff Conerly, a resident of the Cedar Landing and Creek Estates subdivision expressed his frustration with the Pender County Commissioners response to the debris pick up.

“Words fail to adequately express the disappointment and frustration. What makes it even worse is if you look at the debris pickup refusal along with the total lack of support we have received concerning our infamous shortcut/toll problem it almost seems like the two subdivisions are being singled out as an example of how little support can be provided for property owners and taxpayers,” he said.

Conerly and his neighborhood previously came under media attention over the summer when they decided to take matters into their own hands and create an impromptu toll booth on their private road.

Related: Facing heavy traffic and poor street maintenance, these Pender County residents made their own toll

“Three weeks ago, word was posted that the gravel roads would be picked up. At the Nov. 5 commissioners meeting, Commissioner Williams made the motion to pick up debris on gravel roads. None of the other commissioners would even second the motion,” Connerly said.

“This seems like a very biased one-sided position on their part, where it is okay to pick up on the larger more exclusive private communities but just ignore those with gravel roads for no apparent logical reason. The fact that property owners, whether paved or gravel, pay the same taxes. in the case of Cedar Landing and Creek Estates a release was given to the commissioners on Sept. 23 but even that is apparently ignored,” Conerly said.


Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com

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