FLEETWOOD-Although their attorney advised them of their limited legal recourse, Ashe County Commissioners decided Monday morning the destruction of the old Fleetwood School property is not a foregone conclusion.
Previously, Ashe County Commissioners had come to a consensus to take a hands-off approach concerning the future location of the Fleetwood Fire Department.
The prevailing tone of this discussion changed in mid-April.
Two weeks ago, Lee McMillan came before the board to urge county commissioners to intervene in the pending destruction of Fleetwood School.
McMillan was under the impression that the school could be saved if the fire department would’ve secured the piece of property it initially eyed for relocation, which belongs to John Phillips. The Fleetwood Fire Department is being forced to move for the widening of U.S.221. McMillan said the deal with Phillips fell through at the last second.
“When I went to an auction at the Fleetwood School, it was the first time I discovered they had plans to tear it down,” McMillan said during the board’s April 17 meeting. “I was really confused because it is such a nice building. As time went on, I learned so much more about it. The fire department was given $800,000 for their property. The state gave them $400,000 for the John Phillips property. They negotiated to purchase the property. They offered him $500,000. When it came time for the settlement, he backed out and asked for another $50,000. So, the fire department arranged for a contractor to tear down the Fleetwood School and put dirt on top of it and the put the fire department there. The question is: who has the right to make such a decision?”McMillan then urged commissioners to do due diligence in examining their options.“I’m asking you to stop any further efforts to tear down the building,” he previously told the board. “Take the Phillips’ land through the right of eminent domain and give it to the fire department, which was what they wanted originally.”
County Manager Sam Yearick provided some clarification on the subject before the Fleetwood School conversation took an unexpected turn.
In all of his discussions with the fire department, Yearick said the message he received was of the fire department’s intent to relocate where the school currently sits.
“The general consensus is that the fire department decision where they want to put their building is up to them,” said Yearick. “We contract with them. They are a private entity. We let them run by themselves. It’s in best interest of the county to let each fire department to decide where they want their facility.”
Commissioner William Sands inquired of Yearick if the county should even be involved in this matter?
“I don’t think so,” said Yearick. “To the least extent possible. We want to be partners with them and help them when they need help, but we are getting too deep within the fire departments to say, ‘You need to be here.’”
McMillan took the opportunity Monday to again address the board follow Yearick’s comments and again urged the board to intervene.
“I met with the Fleetwood Fire Department at their last monthly meeting,” said McMillan. “They were extremely cordial. They were extremely informative. I learned some things I wasn’t aware of. They’ve been trying for five years to find a place for the fire department. They’ve been frustrated and felt no one helped them. The North Carolina Department of Transportation had not done what they said they were going to do. They’ve received a lot of criticism. They’ve become frustrated. They have concluded all they can do now is move across the street, tear down the Fleetwood School and put dirt on it and locate the fire department there. I don’t think that’s the case. Of all the places in Ashe County, why does it have to be that? There are many places right there.”
McMillan proposed to the commissioners to take a more direct approach with the fire department.
“They bought Fleetwood School in order to locate it (the fire department) on the ball field. The ball field is still there. Exactly where it ought to be. It’s going to take some effort to get this to happen, but you know the Fleetwood Fire Department came about by the community voting a 4 percent tax for themselves out there. I don’t really know but Glen Hentschel told me we could not take away that 4 percent case. I’m not sure that’s the case. I was going to propose if they did not agree to another location, to take away that tax and cancel the contract have with them. It’s an annual contract to give them a 4 percent tax.”
Subcontractors told McMillan on Monday the demolition of the school is imminent.
He said the school’s overall structure is still sound and could continue as a viable option as a community center in Fleetwood.
McMillan dismissed rumors of his intent to purchase the Fleetwood School to transform it into an apartment complex, such as the case with the old Nathan’s Creek School building. McMillan said the school could even be used as a homeless shelter.
“I know people who are living in their car,” he said. “There’s definitely a need in the community.”
Such foresight could have also transformed the old county jail into a homeless shelter instead of destroying the derelict facility, he said.
He finished his comments by urging commissioners to compose a resolution solidifying their stance on the building.
Commissioner Larry Rhodes asked County Attorney John Kilby to clarify where the county stands on the issue, since the county has already relinquished its first right of refusal on the property, which is standard practice when public buildings are no longer in operation by the entity in which they are served and as a result turned back over to the county.
“I’m not sure what exactly you want me to address,” Kilby said. “Obviously the Fleetwood school is owned by the Fleetwood Fire Department. We let go of our right of first refusal. If there are any changes in the plans for the Fleetwood School, it will have to come from the Fleetwood Fire Department.”
The county attorney also discussed the feasibility of a condemnation of the Phillips property.
Kilby said the county doesn’t have the authority to condemn a property to benefit a separate entity, such as the fire department even though it receives significant support from the county. Kilby also questioned how it would be possible to force or compel the fire department to take property it might not want.
Gary Roark made a motion to form a committee to honor McMillan’s request in order to meet with the Fleetwood Fire Department to explore their options with particular regard to the possibility of a homeless shelter in the old school building. The meeting is expect to occur my the end of this week.