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One-stop, early voting starts Thursday at two Wilkes sites

One-stop, early voting, when eligible people can register to vote and then vote at the same time and place, starts Thursday and continues through Oct. 31 in Wilkes County and across the state.

In Wilkes County, early voting is available Thursday to Oct. 31 from:

• 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays;

• 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, and Saturday, Oct. 24

• 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31.

Two one-stop, early sites

Unlike Election Day (Nov. 3), when registered voters must vote at their assigned precincts, there are two designated sites for one-stop, early voting in Wilkes. Larger counties have more sites.

The two sites in Wilkes are the Wilkesboro Civic Center at 1241 School Street in Wilkesboro and the Edwin H. McGee Natural Resources Center at 928 Fairplains Road, North Wilkesboro. Directional signs will be up on School Street and Fairplains Road.

To reach the Wilkesboro Civic Center, turn onto School Street from N.C. 268 West (River Street) and look for it on the left after about a half mile. It’s just before Wilkesboro Elementary School and a short distance beyond the N.C. Driver’s License Examiner office.

The Edwin H. McGee Natural Resources Center can be reached from N.C. 268 East or N.C. 18 North. From N.C. 18 North, turn east onto Fairplains Road a little less than a mile and the McGee Center will be on the right.

To reach the McGee Center from N.C. 268 East, turn north on Fairplains Road just west of Blevins Building Supply and the McGee Center will be on the left after about a mile and a half.

COVID-19 precautions

Voters will have a much different experience than normal at one-stop, early voting sites this year due to COVID-19-related precautions.

Wilkes Board of Elections Director Kim Caudill said masks aren’t mandatory for people coming to vote, but masks, as well as hand sanitizer, will be available at the two sites. Clear plastic screens will be up in certain places.

Floors will be marked to show voters where to stand to maintain social distancing and election staff will be on hand to assist with this. Voters will be encouraged to not congregate inside the two voting places before and after they cast ballots.

Caudill said each voter will receive a different pen for marking ballots, so tens of thousands were ordered. Federal CARES Act funds were used to purchase pens, as well as personal protection equipment of election site workers and voters.

She said the two one-stop, early voting sites will be staffed by about 10-12 people apiece at any given time, which is more than double what is normal, to help maintain COVID-19 precautions. Caudill said finding enough people to work has been a challenge. About 95 were hired this year for the different shifts.

Pay was increased by $2 to $12 per hour, with site coordinators getting $14 per hour. This was also funded by the CARES Act.

Registering at a one-stop site

People needing to register to vote at a one-stop, early site must attest to their eligibility by completing and signing an N.C. Registration Application at the site.

They also must provide proof of where they live by showing any of the following documents with their current name and address:

• North Carolina driver’s license;

•. Any government agency-issued photo ID, provided that the card includes the voter’s current name and address;

• a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document showing the voter’s name and address;

• a current college/university photo identification card paired with proof of campus habitation.

The registrant’s ballot will be counted unless the county board of elections determines that he or she is not qualified to vote that ballot. Within two business days of the person’s registration, the county board of elections will verify the registrant’s driver’s license or Social Security number, update the voter registration database, search for possible duplicate registrations, and begin to verify the registrant’s address by mail.

People who aren’t sure if they’re registered to vote can call the Wilkes Board of Elections office at 336-651-7339 or go the State Board of Elections website at vt.ncsbe.gov/RegLkup/.

North Carolina voters can choose to affiliate with one of five political parties — Constitution, Democrat, Green, Libertarian and Republican — or as “unaffiliated,” meaning no party at all. In a general election like the one underway, voters can choose any candidate they like regardless of party affiliation.

Absentee ballot controversy

As of Tuesday morning, nearly 2,500 Wilkes voters had already cast their ballots through absentee mail-in ballots.

Caudill said the Wilkes Board of Elections is holding about 100 of these absentee ballots, all with issues such as not being properly signed or sealed, as the Wilkes board and county boards of elections across the state await further directions from the State Board of Elections on whether they should be invalidated or voters who cast them should be allowed to fix them.

The State Board of Elections is awaiting a ruling on lawsuits involving the ballots from U.S. District Judge William Osteen. Voting rights advocates argue that thousands of ballots with deficiencies are essentially in limbo until a clear process is developed for handling them.

A key issue is how local elections boards should implement a state law requiring absentee voters to have an adult witness their ballot. The state recently developed a new procedure to allow voters to fix incomplete witness information by returning an affidavit to county officials, but not filling out a new ballot from scratch and having it witnessed again.

Those updated rules are currently on hold pending the outcome of lawsuits filed in the matter.

Osteen expressed concerns that the procedure would essentially eliminate the witness requirement. He had previously ruled in August that the state had to ensure voters could fix certain deficiencies, but upheld the witness requirement.

top story
Court order allowing homeless shelter in N.C. 268 building sought

A civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday seeks a court order requiring the Town of North Wilkesboro and its zoning board of adjustment to allow the Catherine Barber Homeless Shelter to operate in a building at 106 Elkin Highway (N.C. 268 East).

The suit says the zoning board’s Aug. 29 decision denying a conditional use permit needed for the homeless shelter to operate at 106 Elkin Highway was unconstitutional, irrational, arbitrary and capricious. It seeks a court order requiring issuance of the permit.

Arlington, Va.–based Institute for Justice, a nonprofit legal firm representing the Barber shelter board at no charge, filed the suit against the town and its zoning board in U.S. District Court in Statesville. The zoning board voted to deny the Barber shelter board’s application for the permit after holding a quasi-judicial hearing on the request that night.

Dr. Christopher E. Roberts and his wife, Timberli W. Roberts, own the building at 106 Elkin Highway, which is just east of the N.C. 268/N.C. 18 intersection and just west of the N.C. 268/Flint Hill Road intersection. His dental practice, Brushy Mountain Dental, was there before it was moved to West Park Medical Park, North Wilkesboro. The couple offered the 3,224-square-foot, two-story building for free to the shelter board.

A press release issued by Town Manager Wilson Hooper Thursday said Mayor Robert Johnson and Board of Adjustment Chairman Lisa Casey received a summons and complaint for the suit Wednesday. Hooper’s release said town staff and Town Attorney Daniel Johnson are reviewing specific claims made by the plaintiffs and formulating next steps. It said town officials will make limited additional public comments while the matter is in the courts.

The zoning board ruled that the Roberts property failed to meet three of six requirements for a conditional use permit. The board found that it would endanger public health because it is along a busy highway, it would lower values of adjoining property and it wouldn’t be in harmony with the nearby commercial area.

The suit said concern about the Roberts site being near a busy road is irrational since the town zoning ordinance allows homeless shelters only on property zoned highway business district, an area “along designated highways and thoroughfares.” It said the board has never before denied a conditional use permit in a highway business district because it was next to a major road. 

The suit said the board’s claim that the homeless shelter would lower neighboring property values “was based on pure speculation unsupported by data and an expert interpretation of that data.” It also said the board has never before denied a conditional use permit within a highway business district on the grounds that the proposed use wasn’t in harmony with surrounding commercial entities.

“There is not a ‘harmony exception’ to the Constitution’s protection of private property,” said attorney Diana Simpson from the Institute of Justice. Simpson, along with attorneys Alexa Gervasi and Jeff Rowes from the Institute of Justice, represent the shelter board.

“The Supreme Court has made it clear that when the government limits people’s property rights, it must follow the rules and have a rational reason for imposing those limitations. The Town of North Wilkesboro and its board of adjustment could not point to a single good reason to reject the Barber shelter, but they denied the permit anyway. From their actions, it is clear that they just don’t want a homeless shelter anywhere,” said Simpson.

“Allowing the (zoning) board’s decision here to stand paves the way for zoning boards to invent irrational reasons to deny any applicant their permit, regardless of their proposed use,” said Gervasi.

“In such difficult times, it is more important than ever that officials and courts respect the basic rights to equal protection and property ownership that have enabled so many to escape poverty and chart their own courses,” added Rowes.

Elizabeth Huffman, shelter board president, said, “All we want to do is serve our clients and our community. It isn’t right that the town is making up reasons to keep us out.”

The suit said the Roberts building accommodates the shelter’s expansion from a 10-bed to a 20-bed facility, has necessary utilities and other infrastructure and is within a five-minute walk from businesses offering inexpensive fast food and basic retail goods. It said the building is centrally located, near a major intersection, along bus routes, across from a streetlight and reachable via sidewalks.

In addition to only allowing homeless shelters on property zoned highway business, the zoning ordinance prohibits them from being within 250 feet of property zoned or used for residential purposes and requires that they have access to a public sidewalk. The zoning board found that the Roberts property meets these requirements.

Casey said during the Aug. 29 public hearing, “I think the issue here is that it meets the zoning requirements, but that doesn’t mean it belongs there.”

After three people spoke in favor and four against allowing the homeless shelter on the Roberts property, zoning board member Otis Church said a shelter there would materially endanger public health or safety. “You step out at 6:30 in the morning, and all that traffic and everything—it’s dangerous, and they step right out into the main street (N.C. 268),” he said. “The proximity to the highway makes it unsafe to use.”

Martha Nichols, a zoning board member, said the shelter wouldn’t be compatible with neighboring property. Church agreed. Nichols added, “The traffic back and forth, and these people coming in in the dark and going out in the dark in the wintertime” would be a safety issue due to the highway.

Church said a homeless shelter at 106 Elkin Highway would devalue adjoining property on the same street. When Church made the motion to deny the permit request, he cited safety concerns related to the site’s proximity to N.C. 18 and N.C. 268. Nichols seconded the motion and Casey and Mike Staley concurred.

The conditional use permit is required under an amendment to the town’s zoning ordinance adopted by North Wilkesboro commissioners on May 8, 2018. The Institute of Justice said minutes from that meeting indicate the commissioners adopted this and other requirements for homeless shelters “after getting wind that a nonprofit (Hospitality House) from neighboring Watauga County was considering building a shelter in North Wilkesboro…. The shelter in Watauga County abandoned its plan to come to North Wilkesboro.”

A year ago, the zoning board denied the shelter board’s application for a conditional use permit and two zoning variances for vacant property on N.C. 18 North in the Fairplains community. The shelter board wanted to build a facility there, but ran into opposition from people living and/or owning property nearby. The shelter left its prior location on N.C. 18 North because it needed more space.

The shelter was without a home for about a week about a year ago before reopening in a temporary location – the second floor of the Crossfire United Methodist Church worship center on N.C. 115 near North Wilkesboro. It has remained there during the search for a long-term location.

Resident asks town to deed property, citing ‘squatter’s rights’

North Wilkesboro commissioners approved the immediate sale of 10 town-owned surplus properties—excluding another that the town mistakenly “sold” to a resident about five years ago—during the board’s regular monthly meeting at the Stone Center on Oct. 6.

The 0.10-acre parking lot at the corner of Hinshaw and Elizabeth streets, across from the Black Cat Station model railroad center (the old Wilkes Art Gallery) was identified as one of the parcels up for sale, with the caveat that it was subject to a “possible ‘adverse possession’ claim.”

The term adverse possession refers to a legal principle that allows trespassers who openly inhabit and improve an otherwise abandoned piece of property to gain title to that property after certain conditions are met.

Adverse possession is often referred to as “squatter’s rights” and, under North Carolina law, an individual is required to occupy an otherwise neglected property publicly for at least 20 years, or seven years with “color of title” (meaning the party has reason to believe they have the right to possess the property).

Jimmy Foster, 85, has a home adjacent to the parking lot, at 1223 Hinshaw Street. He said during the public comments portion of the meeting that his family has taken care of the parking lot for 107 years.

Foster said he signed a contract with the town and thought he had bought the property for $615 in 2015 or 2016, but the town later returned the check and told him the parcel was actually owned by the North Wilkesboro Housing Authority.

“It was in the paper last week that you’re going to sell my parking lot,” said Foster. “I’m hoping you will consider deeding this to us because we’ve been there for so long and we’ve taken care of it. It’s a case of ‘squatters rights’ or ‘rights of possession.’ Otherwise, I’d have no other choice and would have to move (an outbuilding).”

The parcel (ID 1403558) off Hinshaw Street has a tax value of almost $15,000. There is a small outbuilding on the property built in 1980 and appraised at $8,310.

According to deed records, the Town of North Wilkesboro granted the property to the Redevelopment Commission of the Town of North Wilkesboro (which later became the North Wilkesboro Housing Authority) on May 26, 1980.

Commissioner Andrew Palmer said, “If the town made a handshake agreement with (Foster), I would be in favor of investigating giving it to him.” Town Manager Wilson Hooper explained that that parcel statutorily couldn’t be sold at no charge.

Hooper added that if Foster “wants to come in and make a low-ball offer, and you all want to accept that offer, then we can do that. That said, he can be outbid. That offer is still subject to the upset bid process.”

Hooper said he would take the parking lot off the list temporarily until the matter could be further researched by the town’s interim town attorney, Daniel Johnson.

“I would argue that (Foster) using this as his exclusive parking lot for an extended period, and us not getting anything in return such as a lease, (is) unconstitutional,” added Hooper. “One way or another, we need to get this settled.”

The 10 parcels approved for sale are a residual lot off Kensington Drive (parcel ID 1401896), residual lot near Hilltop Park off Kensington Drive (1402501), residual lot off Trogdon Street (1403472); lot near Woodlawn Center off Boston Avenue (1403482), residual lot off Swaim Street (1403497), residual/residential lot off Boston Avenue (1403631), residual/residential lot off Mass Avenue (1403632), residential lot off Odell Street (1404385), lot behind Black Cat Station off Elizabeth Street (1404901) and residential lot/water easement off Damascus Church Road (2200830).

Hooper said the town, starting this week, will advertise the parcels on the town’s website and social media platforms and in the Wilkes Journal-Patriot. Adjacent property owners were notified last week of the sale as a courtesy and be invited to make offers. If those offers are not accepted, they would be sold through the upset bid process, much like last year’s sale of 912 Main Street.

These parcels are town-owned properties that aren’t already being marketed for sale, such as a commercial building at 910 Main Street and three vacant parcels in the town-owned Wilkes Industrial Park off River Road-Liberty Grove Road.

A real estate disposition policy approved by the commissioners at their July 7 meeting established a process by which town-owned real properties may be deemed surplus and sold.

The policy called for Hooper to conduct an inventory of all town-owned properties and assess each one according to criteria in the policy. Properties included aren’t currently used nor are they expected to be used by the town in a 10-year capital plan.

Plans for K-5 full-time in-person learning told

Nine out of the 13 Wilkes County elementary school principals surveyed favored allowing their students to return to full-time in-person learning when the second grading period starts Oct. 20, said Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd.

“I have to add that the other four (elementary school principals) said they would prefer to have students today” in full-time in-person learning, added Byrd, speaking at the Wilkes Board of Education meeting on Oct. 5.

Byrd said that after consulting with elementary school (grades K-5) principals and Wilkes Health Director Rachel Willard, Wilkes school administration recommended switching all elementary schools to full-time in-person learning (Plan A) on Oct. 20.

He said Willard told him that she feels very good about the return to full-time in-person learning in the elementary schools.

Byrd said Tuesday that Wilkes school officials are excited about the return to full-time in-person learning in the elementary schools and emphasized that “we are doing everything we possibly can to ensure their safety and that of our staff on a daily basis. That is always our number one priority.”

Byrd said North Wilkes High School is still the only Wilkes school that has had a COVID-19 cluster and as of Friday were no active COVID-19 cases at the high school. The state defines a cluster as a minimum of five cases within a 14-day period with possible linkage to the same setting.

Wilkes school board member Hardin Kennedy’s motion to approve switching elementary schools to Plan A on Oct. 20 passed unanimously at the Oct. 5 meeting. He said waiting until Oct. 20 instead of Oct. 5, when Gov. Roy Cooper said the change could be made, will be less disruptive.

During the meeting, Byrd said waiting until Oct. 20 allows everyone a clean start and also allows a work day for transitioning, including returning furniture to classrooms. He said there may be adjustments moving forward.

It appears almost 85% of the Wilkes School District’s elementary students will switch to Plan A when allowed to do so starting Oct. 20, he said. “But keep in mind that these numbers vary from school to school.”

Parents and guardians of Wilkes elementary students were asked to make a commitment to Plan C (full-time remote learning) or Plan A by Oct. 2.

Plan C was already an option in all Wilkes schools and Byrd said parents of any student can switch them to this at any time if they think doing otherwise isn’t safe. “Some parents committed to remain remote until the end of the fall semester,” which is Jan. 14, 2021.”

He said roughly 79% of elementary students have been in Plan B, which is alternating between remote learning one day and in-person learning the next. Plan B became an option in all Wilkes schools starting Sept. 8 and it remains so in all Wilkes middle schools and high schools.

Plan C was the only choice in all Wilkes public schools for the first three weeks of the academic year.

He said social distancing (remaining six feet apart) won’t be required in elementary school classrooms under Plan A, but will be continued to the best extent possible.

Byrd mentioned guidance to have all students seated so they face the same direction. Removing items from classrooms will provide more space for social distancing, he added.

Seating charts will be used to determine how far apart students are from each other, said Byrd. “In the event someone needs to be quarantined, having seating charts will be essential” to determine who was in close proximity to the person in quarantine.”

Masks will still be mandatory for students and staff in elementary schools, except during meals and when students are engaged in strenuous exercise. “Mask breaks will still be allowed for students and staff,” he said.

Extra custodial hours are planned in each elementary school to allow additional cleaning.

He said temperature checks and screening questions will still be required to board school buses and enter schools.

Bus transportation under Plan A will continue much as it is now under Plan B. Byrd said that means one student per seat to the best extent possible, except allowing siblings to sit together. “We originally thought this was going to be a tremendous challenge, but it looks like our decrease in ridership makes this probably doable.”

He said maintaining one student per seat will be more of a challenge on some bus routes. School transportation staff adjusted routes for the return to Plan A, he added.

Byrd said meals will still be served in classrooms. Wilkes School Nutrition Director Marty Johnson estimated that the school system will be able to serve about 1,900 more lunches per day under Plan A than it has been serving under Plan B.