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Pasquotank commission hopefuls debate jobs, schools, solar energy

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Sean Lavin (right), a Republican candidate for the Northern Outside seat on the Pasquotank Board of Commissioners, responds to a question at a candidates forum at the Pasquotank Courthouse, Tuesday, Oct. 16. At left is Josh Tunnell, a Republican candidate for at-large commissioner.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The future of local solar power, whether Interstate 87 is a distant dream, and how to fund schools were among the topics candidates for Pasquotank County commissioner tackled at Tuesday night's forum in Elizabeth City.

The six men vying for three seats on the Board of Commissioners spoke during the event, hosted by The Daily Advance, the Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters of Northeastern North Carolina.

Incumbent Commissioner Joe Winslow, a Democrat, and challenger Sean Lavin, a Republican, are both seeking the Northern Outside seat. Incumbent Commissioners Bill Sterritt and Charles Jordan, both Democrats, are seeking new terms to at-large seats against Republican challengers Josh Tunnell and Barry Overman.

Moderator Mark Maland first asked the candidates what they'd do to create jobs — and if they saw wind and solar power playing a role in the effort.

None of the candidates said they oppose solar farms, but several called for the county to consider them cautiously.

Tunnell said the county needs assurances that solar farms will be properly cleaned up once their lifespan ends, warning of potential pollutants leaching out of panels. Pasquotank County's solar ordinance does have provisions for decommissioning the farms; Tunnell did not say whether he considers the ordinance adequate.

Lavin, Jordan and Overman also advocated a cautious approach to solar farms, warning the county needs to protect property valuable for farming or other development, as well as property owners who would be neighbors to the facilities.

Winslow credited solar and wind farms with bringing some revenue and “attention” to the region, but said few jobs have accompanied the facilities. As he's said before, developing Interstate 87 is a top priority for bringing businesses to the county, he told the audience.

“Interstate 87 is a gateway to the Albemarle; we've got to promote that,” Winslow said.

Sterritt offered the clearest support for solar farms, describing them as important to a broader effort to protect the environment.

“I'm a strong advocate of wind energy and solar energy,” Sterritt said, adding the Amazon Wind Farm US East “didn't cost us a cent to build.” The wind facility required extensive staff time to review, but did not require the county to spend money on new infrastructure.

“Solar energy, we need to do it, we need to protect the environment,” Sterritt continued, warning that fossil fuel emissions need to be reduced.

Sterritt also differed with Winslow about Interstate 87. He doesn’t oppose the highway, but argued it won’t address the county’s immediate need for jobs.

“You've all seen the signs on the highway, 'Future I-87'? Those signs will be faded before you ever see an I-87,” Sterritt said. “I-87 is a dream right now.”

He said the N.C. Department of Transportation has set aside no funding in the next four years for I-87 projects.

“I-87 is 30 years from now,” Sterritt said. “We need to be realistic; we need to do some things for the community now.”

Overman said I-87 “is going to happen,” but warned its economic benefits are not guaranteed.

“We don't want it to be a bypass through our community. … If we're not careful and don't have a strategic plan, it's going to escape us,” Overman warned.

Maland also asked the candidates how Pasquotank should fund school construction projects.

Overman, a current member of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Board of Education, said “it takes more than a minute and a half to figure out how that's going to work,” a reference to the time limitations on candidates to respond to forum questions. However, he suggested the county should look for revenue sources that least burden county residents. He cited passage of the quarter-cent sales tax earlier this year as an example, noting non-county residents who shop in Pasquotank also pay that tax.

Winslow and Sterritt agreed the county needs more revenue through job creation, and should not further burden county residents with tax increases.

Tunnell differed some with Winslow. While agreeing growth would help the county, he also said commissioners need to plan for school spending “as-is.” He said the county needs to save up better for costly, but predictable facility expenses, such as replacing aging school air-conditioning systems.

Lavin similarly endorsed better “long-range planning,” but added he considers the county's existing school debt “crippling” to efforts to save up money for future needs.

Jordan suggested the county needs to keep pushing for more state funding for school construction.

“They need to be a part of this, and we need to get as much help from them as possible,” he said.

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