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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Pender facilities director grilled again as historic courthouse looks to reopen by early summer

The historic Pender County Courthouse, pictured here in early 2019 before restoration work began, has been shuttered since Hurricane Florence caused extensive flooding more than two-and-a-half years ago. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

BURGAW — In recent months, Pender County commissioners have expressed frustration and disappointment toward the county’s director of buildings and grounds, Allen Vann. Vann has overseen a drawn-out restoration of the county’s courthouse since Hurricane Florence caused heavy flooding damages to the historic building. 

Commissioners have asked him why substantial issues were only discovered late last year, and implored him to stay focused on the task at hand: Open the courthouse to judicial employees who have been working in buildings scattered around Burgaw for more than two-and-a-half years. With work nearing completion, there seems to be light at the end of a long tunnel. 

Mike Brisson, who is now leading the restoration project for Thomas Construction Group, told commissioners earlier this month that crews under his supervision are on track to wrap up work by June 16. He said 92% of the work, according to what has been billed, has been completed at a total value of $4.5 million, with the amount of work remaining valued at roughly $434,000.

“It’s starting to look like a courtroom again, so that’s pretty exciting. . . . We’re getting close,” Brisson said.

Such promises to commissioners have been made before, most recently last December, when the project’s completion was pushed from Jan. 26 to Mar. 23.

At the Apr. 6 meeting, tensions again surfaced between Vann and several commissioners. After answering questions about the planning process needed to move court employees back into the building, Vann was asked by Commissioner David Piepmeyer when an industrial hygienist would inspect the building for a “clean bill of health.” Only then could court employees be allowed to enter the courthouse once again.

“I’m also coordinating that at the moment,” Vann replied. “I don’t have the details for you, but I have the RFPs [request for proposals].”

“Let’s not [wait until] June 16th,” Peipmyer replied. “Because we may have to do additional work between. So that needs to be happening sooner rather than later.”

“And it is; I can assure you. I’m having that coordinated and it will be within the next couple of weeks,” Vann promised.

The buildings director then said large portions of the grounds have been “torn up really bad” from the construction work, and Thomas Construction will use a hydroseeding technique to germinate the seeds more quickly than can be done using traditional techniques.

After the grass is hydroseeded, Vann’s crews “will do our best to keep [the grounds] watered as best we can,” he continued.

“What do you mean, ‘The best we can?’ Are there plans in place to have that area watered?” Commissioner Jackie Newton asked.

“Yes, but we have to solidify that plan,” Vann replied. “Because it will be in peak [summer] season and we’re very short-staffed now with the grounds folks. We’ve got to work through that to determine how exactly that will be handled.”

“Well you’ll do that, won’t you? That’s part of your planning?” Newton asked.

“Absolutely,” Vann replied.

He then broached the subject of a master landscape plan for the courthouse square, including the installation of an irrigation system. Newton was adamant that such discussions — what she hopes is a committed community effort to replace oak trees and shrubs and potentially install an irrigation system — should be pushed to a later date.

“We’ve already spent a lot of money; let’s get in the courthouse, and see what we’ll do next fall,” Newton told Vann.

The discussion came months after a tense exchange between Vann and Piepmeyer. On Dec. 7, Vann said Thomas Construction was requesting a two-month extension.

“From the beginning, we had an aggressive schedule for this project, and we were hoping to meet that deadline,” Vann told commissioners in December. “However, we have run into situations [that] you often run into with an old building, as far as, you get into something and you realize there’s an issue there that you didn’t know about or items in the building aren’t located where people thought they were located when the plans were originally put in place.”

Vann said the extension was requested due to “unforeseen conditions that have come about over the last weeks and months.” Piepmeyer repeated several times he was disappointed with the latest delay. The commissioner had originally urged Vann’s department to start with demolition, according to Piepmeyer, to “uncover all these things, knowing that it was an old building.”

“I think we had plenty of time to uncover these [issues],” he said. “And I’m struggling with the terminology, ‘They’re unforeseen.’ Yeah they may be unforeseen, but they certainly would’ve been identified much earlier in the process if we would have done the demolition [in the beginning].”

A history of delays

In Dec. 2019, a worker walks across scaffolding erected around the Pender County Courthouse in downtown Burgaw, more than a year after damages from Hurricane Florence caused the building’s closure. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

Frustrations evident during April’s board meeting were the culmination of a lengthy bureaucratic process of state approvals, federal funding, debate among commissioners, and construction delays. Since Florence, clerks and other court officials have been spread out in several buildings around Burgaw. 

In October 2018, as the county and its residents were reeling from the hurricane, Clerk of Superior Court Elizabeth Craver was dealing with the shift of normal court proceedings to the Frances Dawson Basden Judicial Annex on Dickerson Street – where they are still held today – and the county commissioners’ office.

“I’ve got courts spread all over Burgaw right now,” Craver said at the time. “I’m using the judge’s chambers . . . The civil department has three clerks and a cashier in a 14-by-12-foot room.”

The basement was flooded from floor to ceiling, according to Craver, frying the breaker box and forcing contractors to pump out the water, replace the breaker box, and run new wiring throughout the building.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but [the county] needs to get us in a building,” Craver said. “This is temporary. We will stay at the Annex as long as we have to, but it’s not feasible for all the courts we have going on. There’s not enough room for that.”

As the full extent of damages to the 85-year-old Georgian Revival courthouse became more and more clear, commissioners spent several months debating over state and federal funding requirements. Additionally, the start of any restoration work could only begin once the architect’s restoration proposal was approved by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). 

“We’re holding court in every nook and cranny we can find,” Commissioner Williams said in February 2019. 

At the February 2019 board meeting, Commissioner Newton asked repeatedly if submission of architect Charles Boney’s proposal had been delayed. (A SHPO spokesperson later said her office was in contact with Boney in early February, more than five months after Florence caused extensive water and mold damage to the courthouse.)

“At some point, and it’s not going to be too much longer, we’re going to have to account for this,” Newton said.

In May 2019, the county announced the courthouse was finally undergoing restoration work. Chad McEwen – then the assistant county manager, now the county manager – said the architect estimated a reopening of the building in early 2020. Vann called the timeline “ambitious.”

Such restoration work didn’t begin until the following November. Bids from prospective contractors for exterior work were not received until August 2019.

That same month, then-County Manager Randall Woodruff explained the county’s premature May 2019 announcement.

“Restoration work initially started months ago [in May]. Then when we determined the impact of the hurricane was much more significant than we initially realized, we had to reanalyze [the damages] to proceed at a higher level,” Woodruff said.

By November 2019, the county was still seeking financial assistance from FEMA and its insurance provider. McEwen, promoted to county manager earlier that fall, said the delay in beginning renovation work was due to the long, bureaucratic process of aligning the requirements of all stakeholders involved: the county, the insurance provider, SHPO, N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, and FEMA.  

When asked by Commissioner Jackie Newton if the planned replacement of the courthouse’s mechanical system was part of an effort to “make the building environmentally healthy,” Boney said it would, and that “it will give us the ability to control the humidity inside that building, which we don’t really have today.”

Humidity concerns existed before Florence. In October 2018, Craver said the county had “known that [there was] a moisture-related issue in that courthouse” long before the hurricane.

In April 2019, she called on the county to address reports among her staff, working in the cramped, back offices of the Basden Judicial Annex building at the time, complaining of headaches, sinus issues, and nosebleeds — an issue she called the “sick building syndrome.” She also said past elected clerks had investigated health issues of court employees who had previously worked in the courthouse.

The county later spent roughly $500,000 on purchasing and renovating the former Biberstein law firm, located directly opposite the courthouse, for employees of the clerk’s office to relocate to.

In November 2019, Samantha Dooies, assistant to District Attorney Ben David, said the scattering of court offices and personnel since Florence was a “tremendous inconvenience.” McEwen replied that the county was doing “everything humanly possible to accommodate court operations. 

“Any building that we’ve had, any meeting space that we’ve had has been at the disposal of the court system,” McEwen explained.

Get caught up by reading PCD’s previous reporting:

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