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Monday, May 27, 2024

Senator takes on commissioner’s quest to fix his parent’s cul-de-sac

Two recent cases show how citizens, or local politicians, can gain the attention of NCDOT when it comes to necessary road repairs in residential areas. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — There are some roads throughout the county in disrepair, strewn with potholes and cracks, that beg for a fix-up. Many of them are leftovers from old subdivisions, where the private roads were not built to last and the development companies are long gone. 

Counties in North Carolina, unlike municipalities, cannot build and maintain roads on their own accord, so the N.C. Department of Transportation gets involved in cases where shoddy roads in the unincorporated county need to be cured. 

Residents of these “orphan road” neighborhoods — where the private streets never made it into the hands of NCDOT, thus making it unclear who will upkeep them — can petition the department to take the roads under its wing. 

NCDOT takes ownership of private roads only if they are in state-approved condition; before the government will take the problem off a neighborhood’s hands, the roads need to be fixed. 

Two recent cases in New Hanover County illustrate the different means through which residents, or elected officials, can gain acknowledgement from NCDOT and help bring closure to isolated cases of roadway neglect. 

Over the summer, one set of neighbors succeeded in their grassroots mission by convincing the county to finance repairs that will bring their street up to state standards. On Monday, Nov. 1, the New Hanover County Board of commissioners are scheduled to vote on a similar operation in the hopes of mending five small, private streets in the unincorporated county. 

This latest micro-road improvement project — conceived during quick talks between two local politicians, one of whom’s parents lives in the area — will not be paid for by the local residents, like the other, but instead with state funds.

William Louis Drive, a small stretch of road not far from the airport, is in dire need of care. The vast majority of its residents lobbied the county to add an official stamp of approval onto their quest to get the road turned over to NCDOT. 

State law allows counties to front the money to finance the cost of road repairs in order for the previously unkempt streets to become part of  the state-maintained system. When this occurs, the county acts as a bank for the affected neighbors, collecting payments over time with interest to recoup its initial. At a board meeting in August, deputy county manager Tim Burgess said, to get the ball rolling, there needed to be a petition signed off by 75% of affected property owners. 

The project consists of about 1,275 feet of improvements, Burgess said, estimated to cost around $50,000.

Kevin Millard, who lives on William Louis Drive, spearheaded the effort, and obtained signatures from 23 of the 26 owners who would be billed for the repairs. Under the arrangement, each property owner will be assessed and owe money to the county; they’ll have the option to pay in five annual installments at 4% interest.

“Here we have a severely beat up road,” said commissioner Rob Zapple at a September meeting. Through annual payments of a few hundred dollars per person, it can get fixed, “and put it into the hands of the NCDOT, so you’ll have a permanent solution. That’s fantastic.” 

The pathway was heralded as a smart solution for instigating the restoration of forgotten streets. “This is the first one of these that I know that we’ve ever done,” Burgess told the board in September, indicating more of these project requests could soon follow.

During discussion on the arrangement, Millard thanked county staff and officials for moving quickly and with vigor on his initiative. 

“All those people I just mentioned didn’t just see me as another phone call, another email, they actually took to heart, it seemed to me, the issue, and the fact that it’s a public health issue,” he told the board. “We’re not asking for a swimming pool. We’re asking to be able to drive home at night, to our home, and not fall whenever we get the mail.” 

The board of commissioners will vote on a resolution Monday relevant to five roads in the Weaver Acres subdivision next to I-40, built in 1977 off Gordon Road. 

On Gordon Road, a two-way thoroughfare in many parts, traffic volumes and population growth have outpaced infrastructure improvements. An NCDOT road-widening project is scheduled to begin construction in fiscal year 2024. 

One road in Weaver Acres runs parallel to Gordon, while the other four connect perpendicularly, like a grid. Behind Weaver Acres is an apartment complex with hundreds of units, Hawthorne at Smith Creek. Its privately maintained entrance road, dotted with palm trees, leads to a roundabout that connects to Shaw Drive, one of the streets in Weaver Acres. 

Blount Drive, one of the Weaver Acres streets, dead-ends into a field that leads into the Hawthorne at Smith Creek complex. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

The shepherding of plans for an apartment project on the site was done in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2018 that Hawthorne purchased the land and built it out. In the meantime, there was movement afoot across the street on an even larger development. 

Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, then acting as a private attorney, represented developers in 2017 who sought county approval to build residences on a vast tract of Lewis family land on the south side of Gordon Road. The project was approved in a split vote, despite opposition from planning staff. During configurations of the traffic impacts, the forthcoming apartment complex across the street was not taken into account, since it hadn’t yet been built and by that time the site plans were out of date.

First appointed to the state senate to replace Thom Goolsby in 2014, Lee was elected in 2016, defeated in 2018, then elected again in 2020. As an attorney with specialty in land use and local government, he has previously represented proposed Hawthorne projects in Wilmington and Pender County but was not involved in Hawthorne at Smith Creek.

Jonathan Barfield Jr., first elected to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners in 2008, led the charge on bringing the roads of Weaver Acres to the attention of NCDOT. 

Barfield said in an interview Thursday the five roads in Weaver Acres, in fact, were actually turned over to NCDOT in the past. Most of the Weaver Acres road network is state-maintained. But the cul-de-sacs, beleaguered with deep potholes, are not, and they are the true target of repairs.

The cut-de-sacs in Weaver Acres, which were never turned over to NCDOT, are overrun with potholes. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

Barfield’s parents live on one of the cul-de-sacs. The county commissioner reached out to Lee to ask if anything could be done. The state senator soon informed Barfield there appeared to be a solution. 

“He said, ‘Well, there are contingency funds that could be tapped into,’” Barfield said. “It’s still a process.”

NCDOT maintains statewide contingency funds for small-dollar roadway enhancements, typically up to $250,000, which anyone can apply for. The requests require a letter of support from either the president pro tempore of the Senate or the speaker of the House; the board of commissioners unanimously signed onto a resolution of support that will be voted on Nov. 1.

Lee requested $101,690 in state funds for the Weaver Acres repairs, according to the upcoming board of commissioners meeting agenda, and Sen. Phil Berger will sponsor the request. 

“They found a way to make it work,” Barfield said. “If we can find ways to fix stuff, we need to find ways to fix stuff.”

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