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Rehab progress slow at old Sunbury School

By Cal Bryant

Editor

GATESVILLE – The proverbial clock is ticking towards whether or not a plan put forth in 2011 to transform the old Sunbury School into senior citizen housing will be realized.

That fact prompted the Gates County Board of Commissioners, at their meeting here last week, to express concern over the proposed reuse of the historical property. Their current level of anxiety focuses on the fact that not much has been done to the old schoolhouse since it was purchased on Dec. 5, 2011 by Graham Hatch and his wife, Brenda, of Buenos Aires, Argentina under the business name of Sunbury Fields.

A stipulation in the purchase agreement stated that Sunbury Fields is to present a plan within 10 years of the purchase, which will “retain and preserve the historic character of the property.”

Gates County local government initially owned the property – which included the main schoolhouse along with its outbuildings that were formerly used as a gym, an agricultural facility, a Women’s Cottage, and a Teacherage.

The entire property – which traces its history to the early and mid 1900’s – was sold by the county on Dec. 1, 2011 to the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina for $50,000. Four days later, the Foundation sold the property for the exact same amount to Sunbury Fields.

At last week’s meeting, the Commissioners asked County Manager Natalie Rountree what options did the local government entity have in this particular situation.

In her research of the deeds of sale and the accompanying covenants that offered insight to the binding agreements (between buyer and seller) on what could or could not occur on the property, Rountree said none of her findings produced documentation that the property would return to the county’s ownership in the event that the agreements were broken.

“The county sold the property to the Historic Preservation Foundation,” Rountree said.

Commissioner Henry Jordan asked if the county’s attorney could look at the covenants to see what happens when the property is not upgraded as to the terms of the sale.

“I would like to see us contact the owners of the property to give us an update on where they stand with their improvements,” Jordan said.

Rountree said according to the covenants, the Historic Preservation Foundation has the first right of refusal should the property be placed on the market for sale.

“The county does not have that right,” she said.

Rountree further clarified the stipulations regarding the sale of the property, referencing a condemnation ordinance, as set forth by state statute, used to remedy an issue of buildings that pose a danger to the health, safety, and welfare to citizens. She said that private sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places and/or the North Carolina Historic Preservation Office are exempt from this ordinance from the date of the sale.

“In those cases, the condemnation ordinance reads that within 10 years of any date of purchase, the new owner must have plans in place that maintain, restore, or alter the designated landmark to prevent it from being a danger to the health, safety and welfare of our citizens,” she noted.

That ordinance added that the Gates County Board of Commissioners reserve the right to revoke and/or disallow any waivers to this exemption if the requirements are not complied with or if deception is detected, in the judgment of the Commissioners, to avoid compliance.

“A question for the county attorney would be if Sunbury School has not been turned into senior living apartments by 2021, what recourse does the county have,” offered Jordan.

Commissioner Jack Owens recalled that the decision to sell the old school and its outbuildings was two-fold.

“One was to save this historical property through a buyer that the Historic Preservation Foundation would identify on its own without our assistance…someone who would properly maintain that property and find a good reuse for it that could bring some revenue back to the county,” Owens remarked. “Two, by selling the property it would not burden our taxpayers with us spending their money on upkeep and/or possible demolition.”

Rountree referenced a 2015 email sent to the county from the northeast regional office of the Historic Preservation Foundation that stated the Foundation, “forever bounds Sunbury Fields due to the protective covenants.”

“The Foundation also has four rehabilitation agreements with Sunbury Fields on the site,” Rountree added.

“The citizens of Sunbury, the residents of our county are concerned over this as that property should have been upgraded by now,” Jordan stressed. “It looks like nothing has been done.”

“I agree with everything you just stated,” said Commission Chairwoman Linda Hofler, referencing Jordan’s remarks. “But there is a 10-year period where they (Sunbury Fields) has to show us a plan of action. We’re in year seven right now.”

“Yes, that’s right, but I don’t want to wait until year nine,” Jordan said.

“But we’re out of the loop; we have no leverage in this because we sold it to the Preservation Foundation,” noted Owens. “They have the protective covenants with Sunbury Fields, not with the county.”

Still, Jordan was adamant that the county attorney needs to contact the property owners to learn of their intentions for renovations and what type of timetable they are following.

Owens said that despite the county having no control over what those future plans are at the school, he suggested having Rountree reach out to the Historic Preservation Foundation.

“When they (Foundation) do not see a property being rehabilitated over a 10-year period, have they ever approached the owner and alert them to the time frame and have they ever agreed to receive property back based on a rehab contract being voided,” Owens stated.

Hofler said it was to her understanding that the property owners have been approached by the Foundation over the apparent lack of progress of rehabilitation.

Owens then asked if there have been any building permits applied for by Sunbury Fields in reference to work on the property.

“Not to my knowledge,” Rountree answered.

“There have been some modifications made to the gym, but not to the school building,” Hofler said, adding there are a couple of businesses – a barber shop, flea market and vegetable stand – operating within the old gym.

A member of the audience attending last week’s meeting added there is also a U-Haul dealer operating an office in the old gym.

In the end, Hofler agreed with the suggestion made by Owens to instruct Rountree to contact the Historic Preservation Foundation.

“We need to know what they know about what is occurring at the school,” Hofler said.