The Greensboro City Council agreed to a settlement on an easement dispute over the February One Place parking deck and Westin Hotel project. Unfortunately, it was not the easement dispute that is holding up the project.
Tuesday, April 3, after much discussion on whether to vote or not, the City Council voted 7 to 1, with 1 recusal, in favor of entering into an agreement with Peters Holding Co., which has an easement across the parking lot where the new parking deck and hotel is to be built. Councilmember Sharon Hightower voted against the motion and Councilmember Justin Outling was recused.
The city agreed to pay $100,000 for the easement and agreed to rent six parking spaces on the first floor of the deck to Peters Holding Co., the owner of the building where Limelight is located, at market rates.
Outling, who had been objecting to the City Council taking action on the fly about previous attempts to pass motions, objected strenuously to having this thrust upon the City Council at the last minute with no time to determine whether or not he had a conflict of interest.
Outling said he needed to run a conflict of interest check. City Attorney Tom Carruthers said that since Outling had a conflict on the entire parking deck project, that he would also have a conflict on this piece of the project and Outling was recused, although in the confusion no vote was ever taken to recuse Outling.
Councilmember Tammi Thurm, who works for the law firm Hagan Barrett & Langley, said that she would also have to run a conflict of interest check and wouldn’t know whether or not she could vote until 9 a.m. on Wednesday.
The City Council discussed recessing the meeting and reconvening Wednesday morning.
Councilmembers are required to vote unless they have a conflict of interest, in which case they must be recused by a majority of the City Council. Councilmembers cannot abstain from a vote. Carruthers suggested that Thurm and Outling leave the meeting. Thurm said that she was not comfortable with that.
At one point Carruthers suggested that Thurm be recused for “safety reasons.” Outling, who is an attorney with Brooks Pierce, said that there was no such thing as a safety recusal and if that were the case people would recuse themselves all the time.
Councilmember Michelle Kennedy reminded Thurm that she had voted to approve the parking deck and hotel complex contract on Dec. 19. Thurm said if she didn’t have a conflict then, she doesn’t have one now and voted.
It was extremely messy and it was about an issue that many people closely following the lawsuit filed by Rocky Scarfone over the easement to the back of Cone Denim Entertainment Center didn’t even realize was an issue. It had been assumed that all the other easement issues had been taken care of, and it does raise a question some city councilmember should ask, which is if the Scarfone lawsuit is settled, will the city be prepared to move forward with the parking deck and hotel complex, or is there some other unresolved issue that will hold up construction.
Greensboro offered Scarfone $55,000 for the same easement that it has now agreed to pay Peters Holding $100,000 for – if nothing else, indicating that Greensboro lowballed Scarfone from the beginning.
The City Council met in closed session before the regular meeting to discuss the Scarfone lawsuit but reached no resolution. On Jan. 29, Scarfone, through his attorney Amiel Rossabi, requested Judge Andy Cromer grant a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prevent the city from going forward with construction of the parking deck until his lawsuit challenging the city’s right to condemn the easement for a parking deck and hotel project is settled. He said losing access to the back of the building would put Cone Denim out of business.
Cromer said that he expected to have a decision on the request for the TRO by Feb. 16, but as of April 4, no decision on that request has been announced. The City of Greensboro and Rossabi have been in negotiations but no settlement has been reached. Scarfone said that if the easement were condemned by the city, eliminating access to the back of his building and putting him out of business, the city would have to compensate him, not for the easement but for the loss of the business, which he valued at over $5 million. Considering the city offered $55,000 for the easement, the two parties were pretty far apart when negotiations started. It is also worth noting that the city paid $1.1 million for the entire parking lot. To even consider paying Scarfone millions for his easement would raise the cost of the parking deck by a considerable amount.
The city always has the option of redesigning the parking deck to allow Scarfone access to the back door, but whether that would be more or less expensive is dependent on how much Scarfone would accept and how much the court would award him.
The huge question is, why didn’t the city negotiate with Scarfone before designing the parking deck, when it would have been much simpler to design access – something it would seem the city would want to do whether or not Scarfone threatened to sue. New businesses downtown are great, but old businesses who have been paying taxes and bringing people downtown for years also play a vital role in having a vibrant downtown.
According to a source familiar with the project, if the TRO is granted, that will most likely kill the parking deck and hotel project because the court case could take years, and getting started on construction is already months behind schedule. Although the parking deck could be built at any time, the hotel is reportedly under time constraints.