Thursday, April 18, 2024

A busy night for New Hanover commissioners: Racism, Hugh MacRae, NHRMC, and rezonings

Hugh MacRae Park will be renamed Long Leaf Park. (Port City Daily photo / Johanna F. Still)

WILMINGTON — After a busy and contentious night, New Hanover County commissioners cast several divided votes — including one on a surprise move to rename Hugh MacRae park, a split decision to declare racism a public health crisis, and a 4-1 vote to move forward with the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

Commissioners also took a vote on the Demarest Pointe project off Middle Sound Loop, a townhome development that has triggered vocal objection from neighbors.

You can watch the entire four-hour-plus meeting here.

Racism as a public health crisis

First up, a resolution to declare racism a public health crisis.

“This resolution calls upon legislators, health officials, and others in our community to research and analyze data, and make meaningful changes to dismantle systemic racism. New Hanover count will seek to promote racial equity through policies approved by the Board of Commissioner and will encourage other local, state, and national entities to recognize racism as a public health crisis and take action,” the resolution read in part.

Commissioners Rob Zapple and Jonathan Barfield, Jr. spoke in favor of the motion. Commissioner Woody White said he didn’t feel racism was a public health crisis.

“It seems to word ‘racism’ is used to describe virtually every disagreement of thought that we have, and I can’t support that,” White said, adding that he ‘abhorred racism’ but would not move to classify it as a public health crisis.

Commissioner Patricia Kusek also opposed the motion, saying that she felt resolutions “don’t go far enough” and were not an effective way to create change.

The motion passed 3-2, with Chair Julia Olson-Boseman, Zapple, and Barfield in favor.

Hugh MacRae park

Barfield raised the additional item of Hugh MacRae Park, making a motion to rename it Long Leaf Park.

The park’s name has been an issue for years. The land was donated by Hugh MacRae, a racist co-conspirator of the 1898 massacre that killed dozens of Black residents and overthrew the local government, which was comprised of both black and white leaders at the time. It was the nation’s only known coup d’état.

Recently, a petition to rename the park has circulated, and some of MacRae’s descendants have thrown their weight behind efforts to change the name as well, as Barfield noted during the meeting.

Kusek opposed the motion, saying she wanted to wait until the county’s new diversity and equity department and officer were online. Kusek said she wanted bring more stakeholders to the table instead of just renaming the park. “We need more conversations with everyone who is involved in the community.”

Zapple noted that the new department head might not be set up until September, and that time was of the essence.

White said he wanted to support the name change motion ‘eventually,’ but not at the current and heated political moment. White described the process of judging historical figures — and the monuments, streets, and parks that bear their names — as a “slippery slope.” White said those today don’t know if those who had ‘sinned’ like Hugh MacRae had “asked for forgiveness, from their heavenly father or from their community.” White said that those who wanted to find statements by Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ that were ‘abhorrent’ to modern standards could do so.

The motion passed 3-2, with Kusek and White opposing.

NHRMC sale process

Commissioners then took up the issue of whether to send a letter of intent (LOI) to Novant Health, which would officially begin negotiations to sell NHRMC and set up several funds to manage the proceeds of that sale (totaling nearly $2 billion).

Earlier on Monday, the county released a draft version of the plans to manage the proceeds, including a $1.25 billion community foundation, overseen by a board with six members appointed by Novant and five members appointed by county commissioners (more on that here).

After a review of the process taken by the Partnership Advisory Group to recommend a sale to Novant, commissioners voted to move forward. The only opposition came from Zapple, who has been an outspoken skeptic — and at times critic — of the partnership exploration process.

Zapple made it clear that his opposition to the LOI was not because of Novant’s offer — Zapple said he felt the company and its CEO were earnest about helping the community, and that the proposal had the potential to do so.

Instead, Zapple criticized the process, saying he was led to believe commissioners would first approve a recommendation from the PAG, and then later vote on an LOI (which would include details on managing proceeds). Instead, Zapple said he was informed on Friday that the commissioners would be taking an up-or-down vote on the recommendation and the LOI. Zapple noted that the LIO is a lengthy and dense document with a number of financial details; Zapple said he was told the LOI had been drafted over the course of two months but noted that commissioners had only scant days to consider it.

“It is absurd to think that a deal as complicated and as important as the sale of our county’s and our taxpayer’s greatest asset can be absorbed, vetted, and fully considered in two and a half days,” Zapple said.

Zapple also posed several questions about the disbursement of funds.

These included why $300 million, or roughly 15% of the proceeds from the sale, would go to the ‘NHRMC Transition Stabilization Escrow’ fund, designed to bridge any gap in pensions and benefits as employees moved to Novant. Zapple noted that this was effectively taxpayer money being used for what should be Novant’s cost.

Zapple also noted that the $1.25 billion community foundation planned in the LOI would be the ‘most powerful board’ in the community. Zapple said it was a good idea but that it had not been fully thought through. He said there were no assurances for a diversity of representation of foundation board, and no assurances that those who created the board could not then use it to steer millions of dollars to their own pet projects.

The motion to issue the LOI to Novant passed 4-1, with Zapple opposing.

Demarest Pointe

County commissioners also voted on a contentious rezoning for the Demarest Pointe project, a townhome development planned for Middle Sound Loop. Opponents to the project cited the proximity to the nearby Ogden Elementary School and traffic concerns.

Opposition grew increasingly vocal in the days leading up to Monday’s vote, with a protest held on Saturday.

Barfield noted it was a “great project,” with well thought out stormwater plans, but that it was in the “wrong location.”

Commissioners voted to deny the rezoning 4-1, with Kusek opposing that motion.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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