For $1.25 million, Onslow County on North Carolina’s coast is getting nearly 155 acres of land complete with a horse farm, wedding venue, ponds stocked with fish, rental cabins and plenty of room for trails for joggers, bikers and horses.
The man getting that money from taxpayers is a powerful politician.
Some in the community say that raises red flags — in addition to complaints that the county isn’t able to properly maintain its existing parks and beach access points, even without taking on this new expense.
Former state Sen. Harry Brown, who is also the past president of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, owns the farm. He retired from politics last year, choosing not to run for reelection in 2020. But for the last decade he had been one of the most powerful people in the state. He was a top state budget writer as well as the Senate majority leader — just a step removed from Senate leader Phil Berger.
In March he approached his hometown Onslow County commissioners with a proposal to sell his farm, officials announced previously. A few weeks later, on Monday, they closed the deal. Brown is a Republican, as are all seven of the commissioners. They voted 5-2 to approve the sale.
“I have visited every park that we have in Onslow County,” said Commissioner Walter Scott, who voted against it. “We are not adequately funding the repairs and upkeep of what we’ve got.”
But Commissioner Mark Price, who voted for it, said the county often gets criticized for not doing enough to improve people’s quality of life. Adding opportunities for outdoor recreation — not just walking and biking but horseback riding, fishing, canoeing, concerts and more — is exactly what this is meant to do, he said.
“I think if this sale was not connected to the name of Harry Brown, it would not have garnered the opposition,” Price said.
Around a dozen people attended a public hearing at 11 a.m. Monday to speak about the sale, none in support. In an interview afterward, Brown said he never imagined the deal would be controversial.
He said if he had sold the land to a developer he probably could’ve made double what the county just paid him.
“I was going to just sell it, to be honest,” Brown said. “But I offered them a deal that was for much less than what it was worth, to do a favor. … Because here in Onslow County we don’t have enough parks, to be quite honest.”
However, some at Monday’s meeting questioned whether the county government should be competing with private businesses…