Closing arguments were delivered in the Rackley Airpark quasi-judicial hearing Friday afternoon, wrapping up three days of evidence and witness testimony in a case in which a Clinton resident maintains he did everything asked of him in developing the airpark before having the rug pulled out from under him.
The Sampson County Board of Commissioners, the presiding body for the hearing, voted to go into closed session at about 3 p.m. Friday following closing arguments on both sides. An hour later, they emerged and voted unanimously to recess to reconvene at a later date to hold public deliberations.
Board chairman Billy Lockamy said, in the interest of time and in order to digest all of the information presented, the board should reconvene at a later date, with commissioners able to consider testimony individually in the meantime. County attorney Annette Chancy-Starling and Rackley attorney Tilghman Pope said they had no objections.
“We want to make sure we get it right,” said Lockamy.
“The commissioners are not suggesting at all that we are going to deliberate any other way than we know we should, publicly,” said Commissioner Albert Kirby.
The board voted to reconvene at 7 p.m. Feb. 8 to make a decision as to whether Lee and Yvonne Rackley will be granted the final plat for the airpark, which began development in 2003 before being halted with the denial of a final plat by the Board of Commissioners in early 2009.
Rackley subsequently filed suit and the matter went before the court several times before a judge ordered in October that a quasi-judicial hearing be held, similar to a court case but more relaxed, with the county board making a decision and offering findings of fact to support it — no formal reasons were offered upon the 2009 denial.
The county has contended that Rackley did not meet subdivision requirements that stipulate that all of the proposed 18 lots must abut, or have frontage on, a public street. Also, upon approval of the preliminary plat by the county board in July 2003, Rackley had two years to develop infrastructure to ready the property for final plat consideration, but did not request an extension until March 2006. His plat was null and void in July 2005.
The county has also contended that Rackley was granted a one-year extension in April 2006, with the plat again becoming null and void in April 2007. Chancy-Starling further argued that approving a final plat for the airpark, even if it met subdivision specifications, would be going against Federal Aviation Administration regulations in supporting a through-the-fence operation, in which a private entity is given access to a public airport.
Having such an operation would jeopardize funding and “be putting our airport at risk,” Chancy-Starling stated.
In his closing argument, Pope maintained that the county never gave Rackley an inkling that something was amiss concerning his plat, or the airpark’s development, until he sought the final plat to which Pope said he was entitled.
In summer 2003, Rackley was approved by the Board of Commissioners for a preliminary plat to develop the airpark. In March 2006, a two-year extension was recommended by the Planning Board at the request of Rackley, and an extension given the following month by commissioners.
The minutes of that April 3, 2006 Board of Commissioners meeting have been disputed, with Rackley stating — and minutes of a February 2008 Planning Board meeting stating — that a two-year extension was granted. County officials maintain it was for one year.
“There are a lot of questions about whether (then-planning director Jeff Vreugdenhil) said two-year extension or one-year extension,” said Pope, who asked Rackley during testimony what he recalled from the April 2006 meeting.
“Mr. Vreugdenhil requested a two-year extension,” Rackley said. “If he had not, I would have spoke up because it was a public meeting. I had substantial money and time invested in this.”
Pope asked Rackley what he would’ve done if he had knowingly received just a one-year extension. “I would have finished it in one year,” he replied.
During his closing arguments, Pope recapped the rest of the timeline.
The infrastructure was completed by late 2007 and in February 2008, Rackley went to the Planning Board to seek his final plat. The minutes from the Feb. 11, 2008 Planning Board meeting stated that the Board of Commissioners previously granted a two-year extension. No concerns were expressed at that meeting about the final plat Rackley was requesting, noted Pope, and it was recommended for approval.
Just days later, Rackley testified he was called to a meeting with then-county manager Scott Sauer, Clinton-Sampson Airport Authority manager John Connet, Vreugdenhil, senior planner Mary Rose and county attorney Rick Moorefield in attendance, where he was told of unresolved issues with the FAA. Subdivision ordinance concerns were also raised.
During testimony, Sauer and Connet said they didn’t recall the meeting or what may have occurred. Vreugdenhil recalled being at the meeting and said FAA regulations were discussed.
Rackley was asked to temporarily withdraw his final plat request so issues could be worked through, which he did. He testified that at no time after February 2008 up until the denial of his request in January 2009 did county staff and officials request to meet with him. He also said he had no private meetings with FAA.
In July 2008, the Board of Commissioners tabled the matter. In October 2008, Pope said Connet sent out a memorandum to the airport board “stating undeniably there would be no new through-the-fence operations.” He presented similar memos and emails from Moorefield and Sauer from the time the matter was tabled in July 2008 up until the denial in early 2009, all making reference to FAA regulations and through-the-fence operations.
“At this point, the county hasn’t even denied it yet,” said Pope. “Everything is revolving around the FAA. FAA regulations don’t have anything to do with the subdivision ordinance. The timeline doesn’t lie. When his plat was denied, it solely revolved around losing city and county funding for the airport.”
Even after a 2003 Airport Authority meeting, in which one airport board member urged others to be “cautious” about through-the-fence operations, Rackley testified he asked then-county manager Jerry Hobbs about it. Rackley said in his testimony that he received reassurance from county officials, and continued to put in the infrastructure for the preliminary plat.
“We continued to develop the plan and line up construction and do permitting,” Rackley said. “We had different things to work out to make it work.”
“At any time throughout the course of development until Mr. Moorefield started raising FAA regulations, did anybody from Sampson County or the Airport Authority, when seeing the preliminary plat, raise any concerns about the airpark having direct access to the airport?
“From the time prior to purchasing this property until Jan. 5, 2009, did anyone from Sampson County government, planning or the Airport Authority asked you to do anything with respect to this property that you have not done?” Pope asked.
“Absolutely not,” testified Rackley. “I’ve gone above and beyond, in every respect.”
Following the plat’s denial, Rackley said he had to refund money from the pre-sale of more than half of the lots. He testified that he was never informed by county officials in April 2007 or thereafter that his plat had expired or that he should discontinue work for a halted project.
“No, because if they did I would have stopped before I spent lots of money,” Rackley said.
In his closing argument, Pope explained the vested rights of Rackley, ones that cannot be taken away by any third party, even though one may not yet possess the asset, as in the case of the final plat.
“If government gives me a permit, I have a right to rely on that permit. If I make a substantial investment based on the permit that you gave me, you can’t change the rules in the middle of the game,” said Pope. “That’s not how vested rights work. Once you gave him preliminary plat approval, he had the right to complete the development according to the preliminary plat approved. The final plat does not change from the approved preliminary plat.”
It was not about subdivision ordinances or variances, even a purposed plat expiration, he said.
“Once the preliminary plat is approved, as long as he completes the work in compliance with the plat, all these other tangential issues are thrown out,” said Pope.
The rules were changed, he said, and it was up to the current Board of Commissioners to right a wrong.
“Who is going to invest in this county, or any county, if they can’t rely on the approvals given to them by county government?” asked Pope. “What I want you to do is the right thing. You are the elected leaders of this county and the protectors of the rights of its citizens. Do the right thing. If you can go home and go to bed knowing you did the right thing, I would say that’s how you should vote.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.