Manteo Common project divides town
Published 5:42 am Thursday, November 14, 2019
The Manteo Common project was first presented as a way to address downtown parking, provide green space and develop some space into a common use area that could provide a focal point that would bring people together.
Wednesday night, November 6, at the latest Manteo Board of Commissioners meeting, a potential lease agreement with Dare County, the owner of the property, sparked division and cast a shadow over the project’s ultimate design. By the end of the debate, the community was divided, commissioners and the mayor were bickering and innuendos of closed door deals had been thrown around.
The lease agreement offered by Dare County was approved in October by county commissioners. The agreement offers the Town of Manteo the use of the property in the heart of downtown Manteo – the former site of the “old hotel” on Budleigh Street and two parcels on Ananias Dare Street – for the Town of Manteo to use for the purpose of a “town common” consisting of open space and public parking. The lease would cost the town one dollar per year and came with a stipulation of a desired minimum of sixty-five parking spaces, a twenty-five year term and any other review changes the county manager deemed necessary.
It was the sixty-five desired minimum for parking spaces stipulation that prompted a lively and sometimes passionate debate. A conceptual plan commissioned by the town included far less pavement and far more green space, said some residents who spoke, and the parking space stipulation would change the plans and desires of the public for open space. Not everyone agreed; a downtown merchant and a businessman told commissioners that it was parking, not green space, that was the paramount need.
In July 2018, it became apparent efforts to save the old Hotel Fort Raleigh on Budleigh Street had failed and the county intended to proceed with demolition of the vacant and deteriorating structure. Mayor Owens told the board that the loss of the building could be an opportunity for the town to develop the property into a town common, a space that would ease downtown parking problems and provide a central common space. At Wednesday’s meeting he told the board, “it seems to me we can have a parking lot or a beautiful landscaped area or do nothing.”
Commissioner Christine Walker appeared stunned by the lease agreement terms, saying “I think what John [Robbins, the author of the Manteo Common conceptual plan] proposed was a great plan.” She added, “I don’t see where we have to bend to the county.”
Other commissioners, including Richie Burke, wondered, “where it [the parking space stipulation] came from.” Although reluctant to move forward with a lease agreement until they better understand the precise meaning and intent, but not wanting to kill the deal, several commissioners urged the town to step back and allow the Manteo and Dare County managers to further discuss and clarify the lease agreement. The mayor agreed, but with a warning that the town was about to kill the project over a little green space. “That’s stupid,” said Owens.
Dare County manager Bobby Outten, reached by phone, said he was aware of the contentious Manteo meeting. He said the 65 parking space stipulation was not an absolute, but that the county offered the land to the town in an effort to relieve perceived parking problems in Manteo and it wouldn’t make sense to approve a lease that would potentially eliminate existing parking spaces instead of adding them. Outten said the county hasn’t seen a plan and wants to make sure the county has input into what eventually is placed on their property.
Manteo manager James Ayers, said the town doesn’t have a final plan yet and appeared confident that further talks would be useful. He said “it’s not 100 percent pavement or 100 percent green space” and added a mixed use space is still viable. The two managers will need to seek common ground on the Manteo Common project, but Outten noted the county and town have a history of success on mutual projects.
After the lease discussion and before the meeting was recessed, commissioner Nancy Peele, who was defeated in the recent municipal election, took a parting shot, directing her comment at the mayor, saying it was a shame the town has been taken over by corrupt politicians. She then warned citizens that Manteo had entered an era of closed door politics. Owens didn’t make a public reply, but privately said “I have been called worse.”
As the meeting broke up, many of those who attended milled about. People could be seen trying to digest what had just transpired, while others continued to promote and defend their point of view, some emotionally and passionately. Manteo manager James Ayers had previously told the board turning the Manteo Common vision into reality would take some time. After the Wednesday meeting, Ayers’ task has become how to help mold multiple and divergent opinions into a single project reality.