Cotton Yard price now $73K+

RIDGEWAY – Following executive session at the Dec. 14, 2017, Town Council meeting, Ridgeway Council voted 3-1 to purchase the Cotton Yard property from Norfolk Southern Railroad for the contracted price of $73,000. However, that price does not include surveying, attorneys’ fees and other fees that could bring the total cost of the property closer to $90,000, a source with knowledge of the transaction told The Voice.

Councilman Cookendorfer voted against the purchase, and Councilman Donald Prioleau left the meeting prior to the vote. Mayor Charlene Herring, Councilwoman Angela Harrison and Councilman Doug Porter voted for the purchase.

The approximately 1/2 acre Cotton Yard lies just off Palmer Street and between Olde Town Hall Restaurant & Pub and Ruff Street. | Graphic/Ashley Ghere

How the Town came to be staring down the barrel of a $73,000+ purchase price of a property that it had utilized for free for decades dates back to 2014, when then-Councilman Russ Brown and other council members accused Mayor Charlene Herring of officially contacting Norfolk-Southern about a company parking trucks on the lot without notifying Council. The lot is directly in front of her residence.

Rufus Jones, former mayor of Ridgeway and a political opponent of Herring told The Voice that he sometimes parks his sod truck on the lot.

Herring said she had received questions from members of the community about trucks parking on the lot. She did not identify those community members.

“But there were also citizens who were against contacting Norfolk-Southern, and Council members here were against contacting Norfolk-Southern,” Brown told Herring.

It was reported in the Dec. 19, 2014 issue of The Voice that Cookendorfer said that Council had, indeed, agreed to break off discussions with the railroad at a previous meeting.

Mayor Accused of Poking Giant

“We were done with it,” Cookendorfer said, accusing Herring of contacting Norfolk-Southern against council’s wishes.

“That’s what woke the sleeping giant to where we’re at today with basically [Norfolk-Southern’s] demand to take on [a] lease. That’s something we should have discussed as a council,” Cookendorfer said.

Herring countered that she made initial contact with Norfolk-Southern several months earlier after unnamed citizens came to her with concerns about cars for sale parked on the property as well as a truck on the lot.

“If citizens contacted you, under protocol you should have brought that to the council and council would say if we were going to contact Norfolk-Southern,” Councilman Donald Prioleau said.

Herring said that in the future, she would adhere to protocol, but followed that by asking, “As a right of a citizen or a mayor, why can’t you contact the railroad? This is in the heart of our town.”

“September [2014] it was brought up in this room we said ‘do not bother Norfolk-Southern anymore, because they will put up a fence’.” Brown said. “They’ve threatened to do it before, and they’ll still do it if you bother them. Don’t toy with the railroad.”

Herring said she told Council at the September meeting that she would be pursuing questions about leasing the property from the railroad and no one objected.

“In September you didn’t have the lease,” Brown said. “The lease was presented in October. But that had already got to the point where Norfolk-Southern sent a lease because there was communications back and forth.”

Herring said the Town had to have a copy of the proposed lease in order for the document to be reviewed by an attorney.

“Again, in the capacity of mayor, you went to an attorney without Council (knowing about it),” Brown said.

But Herring said she also informed Council that an attorney would be reviewing the lease, and no one had objected to that either.

Don’t Bother Norfolk-Southern

“But this conversation came from you, in the capacity of mayor, (talking) to Norfolk-Southern, which led to them providing a lease,” Brown said. “We, at every single meeting when Norfolk-Southern was brought up, we all said don’t bother Norfolk-Southern.”

Brown said the proposed lease had sat idle with the Town for a month. Then, during the October meeting, Council reviewed the document and opted to not move forward with the lease. The day after the meeting, Brown said, Herring contacted Norfolk-Southern via email.

“Telling them we were not going to pursue a lease,” she said.

“After we said not to communicate,” Brown said. “And then they sent their email back, basically giving the Town the ultimatum that if we do not lease the property, accept responsibility for the lot, accept liability for the property, then they will have the lot fenced off and the buildings removed.”

Herring said Norfolk-Southern is currently reviewing all of their properties, and eventually Ridgeway would have been forced into an official lease. Several buildings, including the world’s smallest police station and the fire station, had been constructed on the property without permission from the railroad, and Herring said it simply was not right for the Town to continue to use the property without the blessing of Norfolk-Southern.

“Eventually this would have happened,” Herring said. “And this came sooner because I did ask some questions. But eventually it would have happened.”

Herring said the railroad company needed an answer as to the Town’s choice of direction on the lease, and she was only doing the courteous thing by letting them know Ridgeway was not interested in signing a lease.

“Again, back to the form of government discussion we just had,” Brown said, “we’re not a strong mayor form of government, and as a council we chose to let it lie.”

Cookendorfer said it would have been preferable to let the railroad force the issue instead of the Town taking the lead.

“I think ya’ll are making the issue at the wrong point,” Herring said. “You made an issue about the form of government and I understand that, and I will tell you sometimes Charlene Herring errs because she is very compassionate about this town and wants to get things done. And I agree, we are a council and we will act as council. I think you’re pulling at straws now and you’re trying to blame (me) instead of doing the right thing. I’ve got the point and I think we need to move on. If you don’t want to sign the lease, don’t sign the lease.”

“You call it compassion, I call it total disregard for Council,” Brown said. “It’s not the end of the world that we’re going to have to lease the lot, but how it was handled…”

Herring reiterated her point that had she not received questions from citizens about the lot she never would have contacted Norfolk-Southern in the first place. But Brown once more pointed out that an entirely different group of citizens had urged the Town to keep mum on its use of the property. At that point, Roger Herring had heard as much as he could stand from his seat in the audience.

“The Rufus Joneses of the community!” Roger Herring, a former Council member and husband of the mayor, erupted. Brown told Roger he was speaking out of order, but Herring continued his defense of the mayor.

“You don’t do the community organization she does,” Roger Herring said, even as the mayor brought down the gavel. “You (Council) don’t do what you’ve already agreed to do!”

As the mayor attempted to restore order to the small Council chambers, Roger Herring stormed out, slamming the door of the Century House behind him.

“Now, do we need any further discussion on it?” the mayor asked.

“I just wanted to bring it up now,” Brown said, “so the people who are going to be paying for that insurance and paying for that lease when they pay their taxes and their water bills, they know where their money is going and why.”

From Lease to Purchase

Since 2014, the Town has paid Norfolk-Southern $1,000 annually for insurance and lease of the Cotton Yard. Recently, however, Council changed its position on the Cotton Yard. It hired an attorney last year to approach Norfolk Southern about purchasing the front portion of the Cotton Yard property where the police and fire stations are located.

The railroad company’s answer came in the form of an email on April 12, 2017, from a Norfolk representative to the Town’s attorney in the matter, Jim Meggs.

“Would the Town of Ridgeway be interested in purchasing the whole parcel shown on the attached [exhibit]? It is not in the best interest of Norfolk Southern to sell only the front of the parcel, losing the street frontage. We could agree to letting the whole parcel go for $35,000,” the representative wrote.

After considering the offer during executive session on April 13, 2017, Council voted in public session to go forward with the offer. However, while it was noted in the June, 2017 Council meeting that the town had allocated $40,000 for the railroad purchase, survey and legal fees, the sale has never materialized.

Purchase Price Jumps

The railroad company has now jumped the price to $73,000 and it is estimated that legal fees, surveying and other extras could increase the total cost of purchasing the property by another $15,000 – $20,000.

While Council has held numerous executive sessions on the purchase of the Cotton Yard, there has been no public comment about why the price has more than doubled.

Councilwoman Angela Harrison reported to The Voice in an email on Thursday that no further vote, ordinance or resolution is needed on the purchase, that the vote on Dec. 14 was the final vote.  The next Council meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 11 at The Century House.

NOTE: This story includes excerpts from another story that appeared in a December, 2014 issue of The Voice.

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