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Council will hold public hearing on annexing San Juan Restaurant

By Allen Turner, The News Reporter

The Whiteville City Council Tuesday night scheduled a public hearing for Nov. 13 as a first step to annex a property that nearly everyone – the property owner, the county tax office and even the city itself  – thought already was in the city limits but which actually is in an unincorporated area of Columbus County.

San Juan Restaurant has been operating at 1202 South J.K. Powell Blvd. for years and, prior to that, other restaurants were open on the 5.69-acre tract, most of them holding ABC permits that allow the sale of alcoholic beverages for on-premises consumption, something not permitted in unincorporated areas.

Earlier this year, City Manager Darren Currie, in researching possible parcels of land to purchase for a new ABC store, discovered that the San Juan property is located in the county, not in the city. 

“I looked at property records dating back to the early 1990s,” Currie said, “and couldn’t find any record that the land ever was officially annexed. Given where it’s located, I think that everyone just assumed it was in the city, even though it’s not.”

Currie said that the restaurant has been paying city property taxes and receiving city services through the years and that even the county tax office showed the property as being within the city limits even though no annexation had ever taken place.

In order to retain its ABC permits, the restaurant must be located within the city. Currie said he made the Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE) branch of the State Bureau of Investigation, which enforces alcohol laws in North Carolina, aware of the discrepancy as soon as he learned of it. ALE has agreed not to take any enforcement actions in order to give the city and the restaurant time to rectify the situation.

“Everybody acted in good faith,” Currie said. “There was never any deliberate attempt by anyone to misrepresent the property as being in the city.”

Restaurant owners Victor and Arturo Llamas immediately requested voluntary annexation when advised of the problem by Currie and paid the $350 application and administrative fee. Although no formal vote was taken, council seemed to agree by consensus when Councilman Justin Smith questioned the fairness of requiring the restaurant pay the fee when it had no part in the error and will consider a refund when the matter comes before the board next month.

In other business, council held a public hearing in which Division Engineer of the N.C. Dept. of Transportation updated the city on plans to move an existing traffic light at the intersection of Virgil Street and Powell Boulevard to the intersection of Powell and West Columbus Street as part of the widening project on U.S. 701 bypass.

  Kenneth L. Clark, district engineer for the N.C. Dept. of Transportation, discusses plans for moving an existing traffic light on J.K. Powell Boulevard from its present Virgil Street intersection location to the intersection with West Columbus Street. His remarks came during a public hearing conducted by city council Tuesday night.

Kenneth L. Clark, district engineer for the N.C. Dept. of Transportation, discusses plans for moving an existing traffic light on J.K. Powell Boulevard from its present Virgil Street intersection location to the intersection with West Columbus Street. His remarks came during a public hearing conducted by city council Tuesday night.

Council also held a public hearing and unanimously approved a request from Autry Dawsey of Premier Enterprises to rezone from residential to commercial a 0.02 acre vacant lot at 606 N. J.K. Powell Blvd. beside the Sonic Restaurant. The planning board and city staff recommended that council approve the change. Dawsey was in the audience but did not speak during the hearing, during which only Planning Director Robert Lewis addressed the board.

Several budget amendments were approved relating to hurricane recovery and storm water management. Under one budget proposal, a fund will be established using funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the State of North Carolina and insurance proceeds to establish a $1.595 million project fund for Hurricane Florence. No local city taxpayer monies would be involved. $815,000 would come from FEMA, while $270,000 is expected from the state and $510,000 is anticipated from insurance proceeds.

Another budget amendment would transfer $449,900 from the city’s fund balance, or rainy day savings, and $160,000 from street allocations, or a total of $609,900, to provide funding for additional storm water projects in the city. That is in addition to another $100,000 which will be transferred from the fund balance to the general fund and then to the storm water fund, for a total of $709,000 in storm water-related amendments.

A representative of the federal Small Business Administration who had been scheduled to address council regarding federal disaster assistance available for homeowners, renters, businesses and non-profit organizations after Hurricane Florence did not show up for the meeting. The SBA offers low-interest, long-term loans for those affected by natural disasters, loans which fill in gaps left by grants and insurance proceeds, additional funding necessary to make properties whole again.

Council unanimously approved a technical amendment to the city’s panhandling ordinance to correct an error in chapter and text numbers assigned when the ordinance was adopted in August. No other changes to the ordinance were included.

Council also went into closed session at the end of their open meeting to discuss the potential for the city to the purchase of  “certain tract(s)” of unspecified land for city use but took no action.

Stuart Rogers