Raleigh, N.C. — A provision in the newly released House budget calls for the sale of Jennette's Pier, a facility the state spent about $25 million to rebuild just a few years ago.
House leaders say the provision, absent from the Senate's budget bill, is meant as an exploratory effort to find out how much the state can make from the Nags Head property. The pier is currently open to the public for fishing and other activities through the state's aquarium system.
Rep. Tom Murry, co-chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural and Economic Resources, said Tuesday that the House was interested in finding ways to boost funding to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. The fund awards grants to nonprofits and governments for the cleanup and protection of lakes and rivers.
"I'm not interested in losing money, but we're looking at the assets we have," Murry said. "If there's an opportunity to capitalize further the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and make money on a state asset, I think that's prudent."
After Hurricane Isabel decimated the original 1939 pier in September 2003, lawmakers unanimously approved $25 million to replace the pier in April 2009 as an outreach facility for the aquarium.
But as the economic realities of the recession set in, those same lawmakers drew criticism from groups that saw their funding slashed. That prompted some to change their tune.
"A lot of things that may have looked like a good thing a month ago, two months ago or a year ago, may not be such a good idea now," Sen. Phil Berger, who now leads the Senate as its top Republican, told WRAL News in 2009.
Opponents of the budget measure say it makes no sense to sell the refurbished property, which opened its doors just three years ago.
"It's been a great, wonderful addition to the town of Nags Head, the county of Dare and the state of North Carolina – and then some," Cliff Ogburn, Nags Head town manager, said Tuesday.
Ogburn didn't hear about the provision to sell the pier until Tuesday afternoon, when he was contacted by WRAL News. But he said he was alarmed at the prospect of a privately owned Jennette's Pier, especially when the city contributed $300,000 to the project at its inception.
"I envision a complete 180 from conservation, education and management of the natural resource," Ogburn said. "Commercialization is just complete opposite use."
Murry said the purpose of the provision is to figure out whether the state can actually sell it at fair market value, as required in the bill. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which houses the aquarium, must report its efforts to sell the property to lawmakers by April 2015, if the bill passes.
"I would consider it exploratory at this point," Murry said. "I don't think we'd be good fiduciaries if we sold something at a loss."
Democratic Rep. Paul Tine, who represents Dare County, said he doesn't think the bill is strong enough to ensure that doesn't happen. He plans to introduce an amendment that would set a minimum purchase price to repay the almost $37 million he calculates the state, county, municipalities and others have spent on the pier so far.
"They should be made whole," Tine said. "We shouldn't have a fire sale at a lower point in the market and not be able to recoup money we spent."
He added that even though the pier is breaking even, it provides important benefits to those who want to experience state shores.
"There's a value that people have access to our waters and our beaches," Tine said. "If it's in private hands, you could have restriction to that access."
The measure was approved unanimously in House subcommittee Tuesday, along with the remainder of provisions dealing with natural and economic resources. On Wednesday, the proposal goes before the full House Finance and Appropriations committees.
It's required to receive two votes before the full House, tentatively scheduled for Thursday and Friday.