CLAYTON — Town officials are being tightlipped about discussions they are having to purchase property.
The town council went behind closed doors at their Dec. 17 meeting to discuss real estate acquisition, but several town leaders contacted about the meeting declined to identify what land the town is considering purchasing and they declined to say why the town may want to purchase the land.
North Carolina law allows town councils to discuss real estate dealings behind closed doors, but the state’s open meetings law generally requires the town to identify the parcel or parcels they are considering for purchase. The law also requires local governments to explain what they would do with the land if they purchase it.
Town Manager Steve Biggs and Katherine Ross, an attorney with Parker Poe in Raleigh, which is representing the town, both say the town is not obligated to reveal which parcels of land the town is considering for purchase. Ross also says the town is under no obligation to explain what purpose the town would have with the land.
According to Biggs, the town has discussed purchasing one or more parcels of land, which he says are not adjacent to each other. He said it remains uncertain whether the town would want to purchase all the parcels town leaders discussed, or just some of them.
Pitting one property owner against another is a common tactic in real estate deals. When one property owner thinks a buyer may walk away from his property to buy another piece of land, heor she is often more willing to negotiate to a lower price point.
Conversely, if the town identifies specific properties it is interested in buying, those landowners may hold out for higher sale prices.
Biggs said the town has not yet entered into negotiations with any of the property owners about purchasing the land.
Ross, the town’s attorney, says once the town has entered negotiations with a property owner, that the town may still not be obligated to disclose any additional information.
A matter for the courts
State court decisions seem to indicate otherwise.
In a 2002 case, the state Court of Appeals found that the city of Burlington violated the state’s open meetings law when it refused to identify parcels of land under consideration for purchase by the city. That ruling also said that towns could decline to make that information public if the town was considering which of several parcels of land to buy.
In an email to Biggs, Ross said that 2002 decision does not apply to current dealings in Clayton.
“The Council considered multiple properties for acquisition and therefore, which property to acquire was a material term the town could instruct Town staff concerning in closed session,” Ross said.
In an interview on Thursday, Ross took her argument even further, suggesting that the town may continue to withhold information about the location and use of any potential land acquisition if that information continues to be an issue in the negotiations.
“Logically, at some point, I would think those things would stop being material and the town would disclose that information, but at each step in the process, as part of our analysis, we would want to look at whether those issues are still material to the negotiations,” Ross said.
Councilman Jason Thompson, who also declined to provide details about the Dec. 17 closed meeting, confirmed that the town has not started negotiating with any property owners to purchase the land.
Once negotiations being, Thompson said, he could share more details about the matter.