Vance residents allege conflict of interest in sewer line plan
Posted July 24, 2009 4:45 p.m. EDT
Updated July 24, 2009 7:38 p.m. EDT
Kittrell, N.C. — Small-town politics has erupted into a big fight over a Vance County businessman's plan to build a sewer line connecting Kittrell and Henderson.
Sam Watkins, chairman of the Vance County Economic Development Commission, wants to leverage federal funds from a local job-training center to build a $2 million sewer line that would stretch at least 4 miles through undeveloped property along U.S. Highway 1.
"If you can't use that property to grow on, you're in trouble," Watkins said. "(The sewer line) would be an enormous increase in value for everybody's land that it passes."
That prospect has raised suspicions among many area residents. Watkins owns 1.5 acres across from the Kittrell Job Corps Center that could benefit from a new sewer line, they said.
"My question is motives. My question is who's actually behind this, and what do they have to gain from it," said Sandra Hubbard, a mayoral candidate in Kittrell. "This was sold to us as a fake bill of goods."
Watkins denied any conflict of interest, saying he's already lined up a Dollar General store for his property and doesn't need a sewer line. He called his critics anti-growth.
"There are people who understand investment and people who don't. I'm frustrated by it, but I'm undaunted," he said.
Watkins' family business history in Vance County dates back more than a century. He owns a chain of convenience stores, a gasoline trucking and distribution business and a farm supply operation.
He also led a public/private fundraising campaign for Henderson's state-of-the-art library. Like that project, he argued that a public sewer line would help everyone in the area, not just him.
"I don't lose any sleep over the fact that there's anything out there they can pin me with that I did it for personal gain," he said. "If I had something to hide, I might be worried. But I have nothing to hide."
Watkins said it makes sense to use federal money to promote development along U.S. 1. In addition to about $700,000 in funds earmarked to repair the Job Corps Center's on-site sewage system, he is pushing elected leaders to seek out federal grants through the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center.
Arvin Lane, director of the Kittrell Job Corps Center, said he has no plans to give up the money for the center's sewage system for Watkins' proposal. If the line does get built, the center would pay to hook into it, he said, but he doesn't want to wait around for the project to be approved and completed.
In the meantime, residents continue to doubt Watkins' motives.
"He is very headstrong, and when he wants something, he stops at nothing to get it," said Elisa Yount, a former Henderson City Council member. "To run a sewer line that has not been planned and then for (him) to declare there is land that (he owns) doesn't pass the smell test."