A real estate deal in western North Carolina has residents up in arms and has become a major issue in the GOP runoff for the state’s Ninth congressional district seat (being vacated this year by Republican Sue Myrick).
Critics claim former state Sen. Robert Pittenger (R) — who faces Jim Pendergraph in the July 17th runoff — improperly used his power as a legislator to make land he owned become more valuable.
Pittenger fired back in an Observer op-ed suggesting that former Senator Fern Shubert of Union County was more of a central force in the deal. We talked with Shubert by telephone last night, and she told us Pittenger’s claims were news to her:
“Senator Pittenger is producing all of this information — that I supposedly saw ten years ago — that I am actually seeing and hearing about for the first time this year.”
Shubert has also blogged recently about the whole Pittenger controversy:
I don’t like most satellite annexations. One of my favorite sayings for years has been that the best way to make serious money in NC is to buy cheap land and cheap politicians, because the politicians will make the land a lot more valuable.
Politicians can make land more valuable by providing a road, water & sewer, or higher density zoning, to name a few of the more popular options. While any of those options may be justified, unless the public closely monitors policy in those areas, strange things will inevitably happen.
In 2003, because I didn’t like some of the strange things I’d seen happening in Union County, I introduced a bill attempting to limit satellite annexation while increasing the chance a satellite could grow by voluntary annexation to join the town of which it was in theory a part.
My bill had absolutely nothing to do with the 2003 Waxhaw satellite annexation. Repeated attempts to suggest I filed a bill to make the Waxhaw annexation possible were simply attempts to divert attention from those really responsible. The people I thought owned the property at issue, Pace-Dowd, didn’t even know about my bill until I met with Steve Pace at Pittenger’s request. […]
Shubert released the text of an email she received from the developer of the Waxhaw property:
From: Stephen Pace [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Tuesday, June 17, 2003 6:43 PM
Subject: Cuthbertson Road Annexation
I called Jim Mullins and talked with Carol. She said that she would have
him call me but he has not. I just finished reading your bill 452. Item
numbered (2) gives me a little concern. Our property adjoins Wesley Chapel.
If I am reading this section correctly, Waxhaw could not ever annex our
property if Wesley Chapel chose not to annex us unless Waxhaw annexed all of
the property between our property and their town limits. Am I correct in this reading?
Shubert also released her response to Mr. Pace, which she says helps illustrate Pittenger’s involvement in the deal. (Note that Pittenger is copied in the email):
From: Sen. Fern Shubert
Sent: Tuesday, June 17, 2003 11:17 PM
To: ‘Stephen Pace’
Cc: Sen. Robert Pittenger; Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, Jr.
Subject: RE: Cuthbertson Road Annexation
Absent special legislation, Waxhaw can’t annex your property as a satellite now, but that is current law. The only change in 452 is the part underlined which permits contiguous annexation to a satellite even if another town is closer. In other word, S452 permits annexations that are not currently permitted provided they are contiguous to a satellite because denying voluntary annexation means there will eventually be involuntary annexation.
Thank you for your willingness to discuss your issue with Wesley Chapel. They are, as you have surmised, not happy to see anything other than R40, but no one has explained to me why they have any realistic belief that the property would be developed at that density. In talking to the council I tried to make it clear that I was not so much interested in whether they supported or opposed your development but on the reasons why they felt as they did.
I have told them that while I understand their displeasure with higher densities, Wesley Chapel can’t annex the property unless it is voluntary or until it is developed, which means that it will ultimately be part of Waxhaw. I’ve also told them that I don’t think they can hope by opposing your development they will get anything better and in my opinion anything else could and probably would be worse from their perspective. Not one of them has disagreed with the facts as stated; they just don’t like those facts and it seems they wish the situation would go away.
Based on your representations re your plans, I’ve told them that I am not inclined to oppose the request from Pittenger and Hartsell, although I would probably feel differently if your plans were less concrete and if I didn’t feel your project would represent a desirable buffer. (I’ve also told them if they want to see what can happen without buffers they can visit my family farm in Wingate. I just wish I could have something like you propose on the boundary there.)
Because of S452, I am making my agreement contingent on including a provision stopping Waxhaw from using your development as an anchor to permit contiguous annexation since that might well include something that would be detrimental to you and to Wesley Chapel.
Shubert went on to detail communications she had with Gerry Cohen, the director of Bill Drafting, which she says offer further clarification about the roles she and Pittenger played in the annexation matter:
After letting Pace, Pittenger and Hartsell know my decision, I sent a note to Gerry Cohen, Director of Bill Drafting, confirming my verbal request for assistance in drafting an amendment to be sure my bill, S452, did NOT apply to the annexation being advocated by Pittenger and Hartsell.
From: Sen. Fern Shubert
Sent: Wednesday, June 18, 2003 10:27 AM
To: Gerry Cohen (Bill Drafting, Director)
Subject: FW: Cuthbertson Road Annexation
Amendment or PCS needed per conversation (see last paragraph)
Under the rules of the legislature, while bills or amendments are being drafted, they are the exclusive property of the legislator(s) requesting the proposed legislation be drafted. Other members are not allowed access without the permission of those who made the initial request to bill drafting.
When I asked for access to the Waxhaw annexation language, a request that would make no sense if I already had access (which I did not since I had no part in initiating the annexation), the original sponsors of the legislation in question were asked for permission to let me see their language. Note who was asked for permission:
From: Gerry Cohen (Bill Drafting, Director)
Sent: Wednesday, June 18, 2003 10:32 AM
To: Sen. Robert Pittenger; Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, Jr.; Rep. Jim Gulley
Subject: HB705 amendment
Senatro Shubert has asked me to draft some language for HB705 (Matthews annexation) to conform a proposed Waxhaw annexation in a proposed committee substitute to the language in her SB452 which deals with Union County satellite annexations so that SB452 would not apply to it. Can I share a copy of the Senate PCS with her in roder to draft her amendment?
(Note: Gulley was the original sponsor of HB705, the Matthews annexation bill that Pittenger chose to amend. Jim Black had signed on to the bill as co-sponsor, whether before or after the Waxhaw annexation was discussed with him I do not know.)
And here is Robert Pittenger authorizing Bill Drafting to share the Waxhaw annexation language with me:
From: Sen. Robert Pittenger
Sent: Wednesday, June 18, 2003 10:57 AM
To: Gerry Cohen (Bill Drafting, Director)
Subject: RE: HB705 amendment
yes, thanks for your help. rmp
Shubert says this information directly contradicts claims made by Pittenger in his Observer op-ed:
It seems odd to defend The Charlotte Observer, but Robert Pittenger’s attempt to make me the fall guy in his Waxhaw annexation leaves me no choice. His comments in “Observer didn’t tell whole story about annexation and me” were a continuation of the misinformation campaign he apparently started in 2003. I don’t like being lied to and I really don’t like it when people spread lies about me. This is to set the record straight.
I could quibble with a couple of items in the July 1 story that so upset Mr. Pittenger. I was actually amused by the suggestion Pittenger supporter Tommy Tucker has no ties to Pittenger because he claims he does not invest with him, but the story was not about who financed Tucker and the lies Tucker used to get elected.
My only real objection was Morrill’s failure to tell his readers, few of whom have extensive knowledge of the legislature, that Pittenger’s statement that 100 per cent of local bills pass, made to excuse the fact he voted for a bill of direct benefit to himself, is easily proven to be untrue.
My favorite example of a local bill failing spectacularly is S46 in 2001, sponsored by Senator Aaron Plyler with Representative Pryor Gibson handling the bill in the House because I would not, which I personally helped go down in flames. (In a 120 member House, it got 25 votes.)
Contrary to Mr. Pittenger’s suggestion, I’m not criticizing him because I support Pendergraph. I support Pendergraph because I really don’t like how business was (and is) being done in Raleigh. Pryor Gibson’s recent attempt to use deceit to obtain funding for the Garden Parkway shines a light on a dramatic and very expensive example of crony capitalism teaming up with corrupt government officials who are bi-partisan when it comes to personal profit.
But to get to the details of the Waxhaw annexation, details Mr. Pittenger clearly would like to go away.
I wondered in 2003 why so many people seemed to blame me for an annexation that I did not initiate and could not block, but now that I’ve seen the letter sent to the press when questions were raised about Pittenger’s involvement in the Waxhaw annexation in 2003, the reason is clear. According to the June 26, 2003, letter signed by Waxhaw Mayor Jack Hemby:
“The Town of Waxhaw has been attempting to annex the area in question for over two years. After failed attempts we asked Senator Fletcher Hartsell and Senator Fern Shubert to sponsor a bill to bring this land into Waxhaw. This bill was requested by the Town of Waxhaw and not Senator Robert Pittenger.”
I have no idea who wrote the letter, but I know I was not contacted by anyone from Waxhaw concerning the annexation. No one asked me to run a bill. No such bill was even introduced. The repeated attempts to suggest a bill was introduced to permit the annexation when, so far as I know, no such bill was even requested in 2003 is part of a pattern of misleading the public. And from the sentence referencing Pittenger, the reason the letter was written is clear.
How odd that just before the letter was written, Waxhaw officials were denying any involvement in the annexation. Suddenly, after people named Pittenger as responsible, a letter from the Mayor specifically denying Pittenger’s involvement and trying to pin full responsibility on me and Hartsell appears.
And in 2003, Mike Simpson initially disclaimed any involvement in the annexation. Now Pittenger cites “An email from Councilman and Waxhaw Town Administrator Mike Simpson to senators requesting their support” but fails to mention the June 22, 2003 email was only sent to Democrats. If the Democrats all voted with Pittenger and Hartsell, as could be expected, no one could stop the annexation in the Senate.
The op-ed Pittenger just wrote continues the myth of a bill when it references a statement from Curtis Blackwood, who actually represented the affected area, and says “Without his critical support, there never would have been a bill. He would say I never discussed it with him.”
I believe Representative Blackwood when he says Pittenger never discussed it with him, both because I have found Blackwood to be honest and because Pittenger had no need to discuss a non-existent Waxhaw annexation bill with a freshman Republican in a Democrat-controlled House if the annexation already had Jim Black’s support.
If you ask Blackwood, and I did, he doesn’t remember anyone asking him to take a role in the Waxhaw annexation at issue, which makes sense as it was never even debated in the House. When H705 was debated in the House it was about a Matthews annexation. The only time the Waxhaw annexation was even presented to the House, it was a concurrence vote on the House Bill that Jim Black co-sponsored after it was amended in the Senate to include Waxhaw. Adding an unrelated issue to a bill that has already passed one house is a well known legislative trick to enhance the chance of success by avoiding the usual procedures, but it only works with the support of the legislature’s leaders.
Robert Pittenger came to me on the floor of the Senate, with Fletcher Hartsell following him, and told me Hartsell was going to amend a bill coming over from the House, H705, to help Waxhaw with a satellite annexation and he hoped I would support the amendment. At Pittenger’s request, I arranged a meeting with Steve Pace to learn about his proposed development. Pittenger led me to believe that Pace-Dowd owned the land.
At that time, for all practical purposes the NC House was run by now-disgraced former Speaker Jim Black and the Senate was run by Marc Basnight. Both were Democrats and both bodies were firmly in the control of the Democratic legislators.
Fletcher Hartsell was a very unusual Republican since he was a very close political ally of Marc Basnight and the Democratic leadership in the Senate. As I was the Senate Republican Whip, to say we had our differences is a considerable understatement, though our relationship remained civil. When Pittenger said that a bill Jim Black co-sponsored with Gulley in the House was going to be amended in the Senate by Hartsell that told me that the Democratic leadership in both houses had signed off on the annexation. I wondered at the time and still do how Hartsell was persuaded to take the point on an annexation not even in his district.
When I met with Pace, I was very relieved to learn that what was planned was not nearly as bad as I feared. The density was greater than the one-house-per-acre permitted in the county, but there were no plans for commercial or very high density. And I was told that if their plans were not approved, Pace-Dowd would probably sell the property and there was no way to predict what would happen then.
My main concern became what to do about a bill I had sponsored to try to rein in satellite annexation because I’m not a fan of satellites. The bill included a provision permitting voluntary annexation to a satellite under the same rules as voluntary annexation to any town and I was concerned that it could be combined with Pittenger’s proposed amendment to permit the commercial or apartments that appeared most objectionable to residents in the immediate area.
I agreed not to oppose Pittenger’s annexation amendment (made by Hartsell) if I could amend the bill to make it clear my bill did not apply to that particular annexation. Yes, I made a deal and felt lucky to get it since I didn’t think it likely I could have stopped the annexation had I tried. (Admittedly, given what Pace-Dowd planned, I wasn’t that enthusiastic about stopping it. I believed Steve Pace when he said that if they didn’t go forward, what went there might well be worse.)
So I readily admit, as I always have, that I agreed to accept the annexation provided it could not be used to anchor additional development that might be considerably less desirable, but I had nothing to do with initiating or carrying forward the annexation. So who did?
Sorry, Robert, but you picked the wrong fall guy.