City to ask lawyer if Rowan has slandered central office site

SALISBURY — The city fought back Tuesday against what one official called “continuous bashing” of the proposed downtown central office site by Rowan County, and City Council members agreed to ask an attorney if they have grounds for a lawsuit.

City Councilwoman Karen Alexander, who suggested seeking a legal opinion, said she’s not ready to sue the county but wants to protect the city’s ability to develop or sell 329 S. Main St.

Alexander said she believes Rowan County commissioners Vice Chairman Craig Pierce and others may have “slandered the title” of the property by repeatedly spreading false information about environmental contamination at the site.

“It might be to our advantage to at least get an opinion to see whether or not this rises to the level of slander of title,” Alexander said. “... We should at least see what protections are out there, to either get an injunction or something to stop the madness.”

After an unnamed Salisbury family recently offered to put up $7.3 million to build the central office and lease it to the Rowan-Salisbury School System for 15 to 20 years, Pierce told the Post on Monday that county commissioners would not approve the proposal because 329 S. Main remains contaminated.

Pierce said building on the site would put taxpayers in jeopardy, cause groundwater contamination to come to the surface and release contamination into the air as vapor. He said the building could settle into the soil and developing the property would be a gamble because contamination could get worse.

The N.C. Department of Health and Natural Resources in April gave the city the green light to develop the site as a school central office. One of two monitoring wells remain on the property, pumping out groundwater contamination that the state said has been decreasing.

As long as the well is not disturbed, development can proceed, said Dan Graham, a hydrogeologist with N.C. DENR.

Pierce told the Post Graham has no authority to issue the No Further Action letter that county commissioners require for development of the site. Pierce said while Graham oversaw the cleanup, he’s not involved with the monitoring wells.

Graham told the Post on Tuesday that is not true. He said he continues to serve as project manager for 329 S. Main and handles all aspects of assessment and remediation. He said if the site receives a No Further Action letter, he will be the one to write it.

Graham and an N.C. DENR spokeswoman said they are preparing a response to a report from a consultant hired by Rowan County to investigate 329 S. Main St. The consultant’s Aug. 5 report was critical of the city’s response to contamination and raised numerous concerns echoed by Pierce.

The Post obtained the consultant’s email to county staff and commissioners Chairman Jim Sides, who has not returned calls. City officials say the commissioners’ opposition to the central office project is based on politics, not science.

City spokeswoman Elaney Hasselmann asked Pierce to stop spreading rumors about the site.

“Further sharing of inaccurate information with the public damages the ability of the city to redevelop the site,” Hasselmann said in an email Tuesday. “On behalf of the city of Salisbury, I formally request that you cease.”

Pierce replied in an email to Hasselmann the city can’t have it both ways.

“Either the site is clean or it’s not,” Pierce wrote. “So let’s have a definitive answer and stop this he-said she-said conversation.

“It’s funny that Mr. Graham has remained silent on this issue other than his vague letter stating the site was ready for construction as long as the wells were maintained.”

The city says a No Further Action letter pertains only to when the city can close the monitoring well and is not related to site development.

Graham in April said the state “has no objections to any development of the referenced site.”

Pierce said Graham has not addressed the possibility that groundwater contamination could get worse. He said the best alternative is to pave the lot.

“I would request that you contact Dan Graham, as he seems to be the final word, according to you and give us the full expectations on this site and end all the questions and half-truths that we keep hearing,” Pierce wrote.

Alexander said Pierce is “spewing misinformation” that is contradicted by professionals who have approved the site for development.

“It’s another way of damaging our reputation as a community,” she said. “I think it’s serious business, and I think it’s something we should at least consider.”

Councilman Pete Kennedy was the only member to resist the idea of hiring a lawyer. City Manager Doug Paris said the city needs to protect its investment.

“If the school central office site does not go there, continued talk in the fashion that has been going on in the last couple days regarding the site could impact our ability to develop the site,” Paris said.

Ultimately, if the city can’t sell or develop the site, that will hurt taxpayers, he said, asking Kennedy for support to “simply explore that option” of slander of title. Kennedy agreed.

The city, school system and state have spent more than $1.3 million preparing the site and designing the building, Alexander said. She said some slander of title lawsuits have resulted in damages triple the financial loss suffered by the property owner.

Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell suggested the city also indemnify the property, or agree to compensate the school system and potential private investors for loss or damage due to environmental concerns. Council members agreed.

Paris said the school system, not Rowan County as Pierce said, would own the central office under the proposal from the unnamed Salisbury family.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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