BURGAW — Citing a perceived conflict of interest, Pender County commissioners have asked a key leader of the Hampstead incorporation committee, Suzann Rhodes, to resign from her position on the county’s Planning Board.
According to Rhodes, members of a the opposition group Save Our Community had successfully lobbied county commissioners to remove her from the board. Hampstead resident Al Sidbury leads the opposition group, the same organization that successfully challenged an effort to incorporate Hampstead in 2007.
“We’re not organized enough to make a statement,” Sidbury said. He later continued, “People do not want any more government or taxes. That’s it in a nutshell.”
Rhodes said Save Our Community is circulating a petition to prevent a referendum from taking place.
“It’s been 12 years. It’s time to revisit,” Rhodes said. “There has been more than a doubling of the population [since 2007]. It’s time to at least look at the facts and open it up to everybody. We would like to get this to a referendum so everybody has a chance to vote.”
Rhodes said her committee consists of Hampstead homeowners and presidents of homeowners associations, while many people supporting the opposition are “big developers and land owners.”
County commissioner: A perceived conflict of interests
Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners George Brown said the decision to remove Rhodes from her role on the planning board was difficult, citing her intelligence and planning experience, and hopes she can re-join the board after the Hampstead issue is brought to a close.
“When people need to get involved in issues — we encourage that, it’s a good thing,” Brown said. “The problem is, when it becomes what is perceived by the pubic as a conflict of interests. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on. We just can’t have that perception out there.”
He said the central issue was Rhodes’ capacity as a board member in dealing directly with zoning and planning for the county. One of the incorporation committee’s key arguments is that a self-governing city or town would have more control over “smart growth.”
“What we’re saying is: this is the information on incorporation, this is the size of our community, this is the population density — 465 people per square mile in the Hampstead area versus 51 in the rest of the county,” Rhodes said. “There are unique needs of an urban area to take responsibility of our own development and growth.”
Both Rhodes and Brown said the county has maintained a neutral position on the matter.
“This was a contentious issue when it came up 12 years ago, and it’s a contentious issue today,” Brown said. “And because it’s such a contentious issue, we have to be careful that we’re not doing anything that looks improper here,” Brown said.
According to Rhodes, self-interests continue to fuel the debate.
“The county commissioners were elected to do what’s best for the county. And that’s their job. What we need is someone elected from Hampstead to do what’s best for Hampstead,” Rhodes said. “People keep arguing for individual reasons, speaking for their own developments — not for Hampstead.”
A contentious debate
Rhodes said that members of the opposition group have used the social media platform Next Door to verbally attack her group, making accusations that “somebody has something to gain and that somebody is backing us.”
“None of that is true,” Rhodes said. “We have nothing to gain. I said to them that I would not run for office.”
She also said her group was self-funded by “a few hundred bucks” to create a website, print promotional materials, and rent meeting space. She believes the opposition group, meanwhile, is well-funded.
After two mid-February community meetings at the American Legion in Hampstead became heated, Rhodes said a county sheriff’s deputy was present at the remaining two meetings to ensure a civil debate.
“We were heckled. There was a lot of nastiness from the opposition,” Rhodes said. “And they’ve been intimidating people who were in favor of it. … We’ll keep plugging away at it. Their efforts to harm me by having me removed from the Planning Board just gave me extra time to dedicate to incorporation.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com