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“A lot of questions not being answered.” Onslow citizens react to purchase of equestrian farm

The Onslow County Board of Commissioners approved 5-2 a $1.25 million purchase of a 153-acre farm owned by former State Senator Harry Brown.
Published: Apr. 5, 2021 at 7:21 PM EDT
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ONSLOW COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) - Onslow County is officially buying Equine Country USA, a 153-acre property owned by former State Senator Harry Brown.

The property includes horse stables, cabins, lakes, and a general store. The county announced last week that Brown proposed that the county purchase the property, independently appraised at more than $2.4 million. The board approved the $1.25 million purchase Monday by a 5-2 vote.

“I don’t know what to think,” said Christine Lee-Card, a citizen who was against the purchase. “I think that it’s time that they provide the information that we need.”

Lee-Card and others who spoke at what turned into a very tense three-hour board meeting felt the purchase was frivolous and rushed, with little time for people in the county to decide if it was a good use of tax dollars.

“There are a lot of questions that are not being answered,” said Lee-Card. “And I think it’s time for the citizens to have all of their questions answered.”

Questions, she added, like how the board plans to ensure they make a profit. The board detailed during their meeting Monday they hope it will bring in more tourism to the county.

“It’s good to have outdoor areas for families to go to and enjoy a safe, healthy environment. I believe in that,” said Board Vice Chairman Tim Foster. “There is an opportunity to take our other existing businesses and put them in the building out there and advertise what they have to offer.”

About a dozen people showed up to speak during the meeting, not one in favor of the purchase.

About 1/4 of the cost is covered by the county’s general fund, with the other 3/4 paid with county tourism dollars.

That’s money that four representatives of the town of North Topsail Beach showed up to demand the money spent in their town.

“We are asking for you to return our occupancy taxes to us,” said North Topsail Beach Mayor Joann McDermon. “Because if you are going to make a frivolous purchase such as an equine center, we do feel that we would be in a better position to manage those funds.”

The county collects a 3% occupancy tax from all unincorporated municipalities, including North Topsail Beach, an annual total of about $1.5 million. The town also gets the same share, but they want the county’s share back to fund beach renourishment instead of funding the farm.

“North Topsail Beach brings people here,” said Foster. “But it’s the United States Marine Corps whose families come here and make it a destination so they can visit their sons and daughters.”

According to county documents, the county collects about 55% of its occupancy taxes from the city of Jacksonville annually, compared to about 30% of occupancy tax dollars from North Topsail Beach.

The controversial issue revealed two board members, Commissioners Robin Knapp and Walter Scott, to be against the issue and ultimately vote no until further questions are answered.

“We still have people out there that are suffering from Hurricane Florence, Hurricane Dorian,” said Knapp. “And we’re gonna make a land purchase?”

The issue also created some tension between board members. Knapp implied during the meeting that Commissioner Royce Bennett, a realtor by trade, should recuse himself from the vote because of property he has listed, owned by Senator Harry Brown. Bennett declined, saying he would not benefit financially from the purchase.

Ultimately, the board’s majority found more positives in the purchase than negatives and approved the buy, hoping to keep business here in rural Onslow County.

“Will this be self-sustaining?” asked Foster rhetorically. “And the answer has overwhelmingly each time been it will be self-sustaining.”

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