11/17/18: COUNCILMAN CHRIS NASON KNEW ABOUT THE SAGA HOUSES MONTHS AGO: DOES THAT MATTER?

98demolished
The property at 98 Ocean Boulevard as it appears today.

During the Nov. 7 Town Council special meeting, Councilman Christopher Nason addressed the suggestion that he had a financial interest in SAGA Construction & Development’s proposed 12-bedroom “mega”-houses on the Southern Shores oceanfront and that, indeed, he or his architectural firm had designed them.

In setting the record straight, The Beacon believes that Mr. Nason, an architect who owns Beacon Architecture & Design in Kill Devil Hills, raised some serious questions about whether he is serving the public interest, as his elected office compels, before his own.

All Town Council members are governed by a town code of ethics, whose content is largely based on North Carolina statute. The code requires Town Council members, in significant part, to be “independent, impartial and responsible to the people.” Council members must “uphold the integrity and independence” of their office; “always avoid any impropriety or the appearance of impropriety” in all of their activities; and “always minimize the risk of conflict of [their] private life dealings with [their] official duties.”

Did Councilman Nason do so? You can decide for yourself.

I have not concluded that he violated the code of ethics–ethics is a gray area–but I find some of his actions troubling, in light of the public office he holds.

***

During the public-hearing portion of the special meeting, Chicahauk homeowner, Shelley Tarleton, pointedly questioned whether someone on the Town Council, whom she did not name, would benefit financially from SAGA’s proposed projects at 98 Ocean Blvd. and 134 Ocean Blvd.

Mr. Nason decided to respond to Ms. Tarleton’s charge, acknowledging that he knew she was speaking about him. Mr. Nason noted that Gard Skinner, another Chicahauk property owner, had asked him in an email “during the deliberation process” before the special meeting if he or someone in his firm was the architect on the SAGA projects. Mr. Nason said he called Mr. Skinner and assured him that “We did not design these structures.”

“In fact,” he elaborated at the meeting, “we had the opportunity to design them, but very honestly, did not feel it was appropriate for the Town of Southern Shores; it wasn’t a good fit for us. Realistically, it probably wasn’t a good fit for them either.

“So, on a personal level,” he continued, “I just didn’t think it was appropriate to this area. That doesn’t mean they can’t do it—there’s other folks out there who can perform these services for them.”

Mr. Nason concluded his remarks about a potential conflict of interest by acknowledging: “. . . I have worked for SAGA in the past, but I’ve never worked for them in the Town of Southern Shores.”

He then addressed the appropriateness of SAGA building its mega-houses in Southern Shores.

“As an architect,” he said, “I am acutely aware of the surroundings. Our town isn’t like all the other towns.”

There “are a ton of these [SAGA] houses,” he said, in Corolla, which he characterized as a “whole different ball game” from Southern Shores. In Corolla, he said, “the cat’s already out of that bag.”

But, The Beacon wonders, won’t the cat be out of the bag in Southern Shores when SAGA builds its 5,981-square-foot, 12-bedroom, 12-bathroom, 17-parking-space house with septic capacity for 24 people at 98 Ocean Blvd., where it last week demolished a vintage flattop?

According to Planning Director Wes Haskett, SAGA filed its building-permit application for 98 Ocean Blvd. on Nov. 5, and it is currently under review. The photo above depicts the property as it appeared the morning of Nov. 17.

(You may view the video of the special meeting at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdFYd4ug4xc&feature=youtu.be. Mr. Nason’s remarks are about one hour and five minutes into the tape.)

***

I find it troubling, first, that SAGA approached Mr. Nason for these jobs, even though, as he told me in a subsequent telephone call (see below), that there are only a few architects on the beach. That action implies that SAGA perceived little or no risk in contacting Mr. Nason, even though he is a Town Council member in a town that repelled the Kill Devil Hills-based developer less than three years ago and could initiate action to do so again.

The Town’s 6,000-square-foot maximum house size ordinance was enacted Jan. 22, 2016, in direct response to SAGA’s plan to build a 16-bedroom wedding-destination/ “event” house at 64 Ocean Blvd. The opposition from Southern Shores property owners at that time was intense, and Mr. Nason was in the thick of it, his business relationship with SAGA being hotly called into question then. SAGA corporate officials, who were seen at the Jan. 22 hearing, experienced community outrage firsthand.

Mr. Nason and Mayor Tom Bennett voted against the 6,000-square-foot limitation, but it passed 3-2, with Town Councilmen Leo Holland, Gary McDonald, and Fred Newsberry in the majority. Mr. McDonald, who made the motion to approve the zoning text amendment that changed maximum house size, is on record as having favored a 5,000-square-foot limit.

I also find it troubling that Mr. Nason admits that, “on a personal level,” he did not think SAGA’s proposed houses were “appropriate” for Southern Shores, but he apparently did not consider his responsibilities as a public official.

Question: As a public official, and therefore, a steward of the public’s trust, should Mr. Nason have reported his contact with SAGA about designing the two houses, knowing that the public he serves doesn’t want the Corolla cat out of the bag in Southern Shores?

That was abundantly clear in January 2016.

Question: Should Mr. Nason have participated in any debate, discussion, or deliberation that concerned the Town Council’s response to the proposed SAGA developments?

The Town Council had the option of fast-tracking an amendment to the Town zoning code that would have prevented at least one of the two proposed SAGA houses, from going forward—lowering the maximum house size from 6,000 square feet to 5,500 or 5,000 square feet, for example—but it did not explore any such options.

SAGA still does not own 134 Ocean Blvd. and cannot apply for local permits until it does. More than a month has passed since SAGA’s plans for 134 Ocean Blvd. became public knowledge, ample time to take preventive action.

***

As I reported 11/7/18, the special meeting initially troubled me because the majority bloc of Mayor Bennett, Councilman Nason, and Councilman Jim Conners rallied around the lengthy motion made by Mr. Conners to create an overlay zoning district and to regulate new construction within it. I felt that the majority had made up its collective mind and would not entertain other viable options, which were offered by Councilman McDonald. The public was force-fed a “done deal.”

After my reporting, I got to thinking about Mr. Nason’s disclosures. On Nov. 9, I emailed him, asking: “When did SAGA approach you with this opportunity?”

When he had not responded by Tuesday, Nov. 13, I called him at his office and asked him again: When had SAGA contacted him? I caught him by surprise.

He replied: “About a month or two ago.”

When I suggested that didn’t seem possible, and I pressed for a more precise answer, Mr. Nason said, “I don’t know the exact dates.” More persistence from me drew the response: “I’m not sure.”

Chris is an acquaintance of mine. We are friendly. He and I have spoken many times in the Pitts Center—always cordially, never with anger or rancor. Full disclosure: I lost to him in the 2015 election for Town Council. I have not taken down my campaign website, which is www.vote4ann.com, because I want Beacon readers to know who I am, not because I plan to run again.

I was not when I called him, nor am I now, out to “get” Chris. I just wanted to know how long he had known about SAGA’s plans and what his business association is with the developer. I think such information falls within the purview of the public’s right to know.

It has long been said in ethics law that a public official “cannot serve two masters,” and the one he/she must serve is the public.

Chris quickly became uncomfortable with my questions, saying, “I’m not prepared to give an interview,” and “I’m not going to get grilled on this stuff.”

When I asked him to tell me about the work he has done with SAGA, he replied: “No comment.”

When I asked if he has any ongoing projects with SAGA, he also replied: “No comment.”

I asked him if he had told anyone, such as the Mayor, about SAGA giving him the opportunity to design these houses: “No comment.”

I suggested to Councilman Nason that he fully disclose to the Southern Shores public his past, current, and anticipated relationship and projects with SAGA. I believe that the integrity of his elected office demands such transparency. If he didn’t want to be in a position of revealing details about his business dealings and his clients, he shouldn’t have run for Town Council.

***

My telephone messages to Amit Gupta, president of SAGA, and Gracelyn Mirick, the developer’s assistant construction manager—whose extension number is included on CAMA permit applications—went unanswered last week.

I did manage Friday to reach Ralph Lasater, the architect with Community Planning and Architectural Associates who designed the houses for SAGA, in his Kitty Hawk office. I identified myself as a blogger, with The Beacon. I don’t do “gotcha.”

Like Mr. Nason, Mr. Lasater was caught off-guard by my call. He was reluctant to say much without talking with his client first. He did tell me, however, that he had been working on the SAGA projects “about four months now” and that he had put “more effort” into them, in order “to meet [SAGA’s] goals and the goals of the town.”

According to the public record, the construction plans for the CAMA permit at 98 Ocean Blvd. were submitted by SAGA on Aug. 13, 2018. Mr. Lasater’s time frame of four months fits with this date.

SAGA’s contact with Councilman Nason, therefore, appears to date back to July or earlier. It was on July 10 that Mr. Nason made an impassioned argument at a Town Council meeting in favor of a zoning text amendment (ZTA 18-04) that would have changed the calculation of the 30-percent lot coverage limit in town.

Had Mr. Nason been successful in getting the ZTA passed, as written, up to 500 square feet of the water area of a swimming pool and 50 percent of the area consumed by pervious materials and turfstone/pavers for driveways and parking areas would have been eliminated from the building footprint, i.e., the 30-percent lot coverage. Unquestionably, SAGA would have directly benefited from these changes.

I am not suggesting that Mr. Nason was doing SAGA’s bidding here. I certainly have no evidence of that. I am suggesting, however, that knowing that Mr. Nason has a business association with SAGA and was offered the design work at 98 and 134 Ocean Blvd. casts a different light on his previous actions. How can it not? That’s the premise behind the phrase, “appearance of impropriety.”

Doubt creeps in: Can he be impartial?

Mr. Nason tried to get the lot-coverage changes enacted in 2017 in the form of ZTA 17-03, which a majority comprised of Councilmen Newberry, McDonald, and Holland defeated in September 2017. The ZTA was resurrected, with only a minor change, by the Mayor and Councilmen Conners and Nason at the Feb. 6 Town Council meeting—just three months after Mr. Conners’s election—in the form of ZTA 18-04.

***

Does it matter that Town Councilman Christopher Nason knew about the SAGA houses months ago, and kept this knowledge secret from the public that he was elected to service, if he has no financial or personal interest in them?

If disclosure was not incumbent on Mr. Nason earlier, should he have disclosed “the opportunity” that SAGA extended to him to design these houses as soon as the news of the developments broke in October?

Should he have disclosed the nature of his relationship with SAGA and any ongoing projects that he may have with the developer?

Does it matter that Mr. Nason participated in Town Council’s deliberations, discussions, and decision-making—outside and within a public forum—precipitated by the SAGA developments? And that, perhaps, as a consequence, there was no movement within the Council to take preventive action? To stop the development at 134 Ocean Blvd.?

I spoke with Mayor Bennett shortly after my telephone call with Mr. Nason. He said he first learned about the SAGA houses in early October and that Chris was approached by SAGA “some time ago.”

He saw no problem with Councilman Nason’s actions. He characterized the architect as “forthright” about his business dealings, noting that he has recused himself before.

(I remember only one recusal since his 2015 election: Mr. Nason was the architect of a project upon which the Town Council was directly voting, that of the drive-through Nu-Quality Ice Cream shop at 5415 N. Croatan Hwy., between the banks in front of the Marketplace. The property owner, Spiros Giannakopoulos, was/is Mr. Nason’s client.

(But it was not until late in the approval process—which began with a Planning Board hearing on April 16 and concluded June 5 in the Town Council, with a vote on the second reading of a zoning text amendment that former Planning Board Chairman Sam Williams wrote in order to change the town’s drive-through ordinance to accommodate Mr. Nason’s client—that Mr. Nason’s professional association was publicly and openly revealed. It was on June 5. Mr. Nason was absent for the first reading of the ZTA in May.)

“Chris is trying to maintain relationships with developers and builders,” Mr. Bennett told me on the telephone, something the Mayor views as understandable, considering his profession.

I certainly don’t begrudge Mr. Nason a livelihood.

But I invite Mayor Bennett to tell his constituents about the process—the who, what, when, where, why, and how—that led to the Town Council’s lengthy motion, which Mr. Conners read and Mr. Nason seconded, at the special meeting, and to its decision not to act quickly to stop the SAGA developments, at least the one, when there was still time.

The public’s business should be conducted in public.

The appearance of impropriety, even if no impropriety occurred, always undermines the public’s faith that a process is fair. Full disclosure should be every mayor’s mantra.

It may well be that the issues I’m raising here are better resolved at the ballot box. Architects, builders, and other development and construction professionals may simply be poor choices for public office in a town that is being transformed, and with opposition from property owners, by the building industry. One sure way to resolve any concerns about conflicts of interest is to elect people who won’t have them.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 11/17/18; edited 11/19/18

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2 thoughts on “11/17/18: COUNCILMAN CHRIS NASON KNEW ABOUT THE SAGA HOUSES MONTHS AGO: DOES THAT MATTER?

  1. This incident illustrates to me the problems posed to both the citizens of Southern Shores, or any community on the Outer Banks, and to elected officials representing those citizens. Our economy is primarily based on tourism and real estate property development, rental and sale which are mostly an extension of the tourism industry. While many of the tourism related activities such as restaurants, retail sales, entertainment, and other services have no bearing on residential zoning ordinances, real estate interests are directly related to residential zoning ordinances.

    Many citizens who care about the type of development conducted within their communities assess whether zoning ordinance votes taken by elected officials who rely solely on real estate development for their livelihood are based on the interests of their community and not the interests of real estate developers.

    Elected officials who rely on real estate developers for their livelihood must avoid actual conflicts of interest which can lead to declining business opportunities and/or recusing from votes on building permits or zoning ordinances. In order to maintain the confidence of their constituents, elected officials must also avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest. Mr. Nason seems to have declined the opportunity to design the building at 98 Ocean Boulevard to avoid a potential direct conflict of interest and the appearance of a conflict in this case. This decision directly affected his income and illustrates one problem for elected officials who rely on real estate development for their livelihood.

    Even though he declined the 98 Ocean Boulevard design opportunity, if Mr. Nason is still conducting business as an architect, he will presumably design buildings in Southern Shores or other Outer Banks communities – possibly for SAGA as well as other developers and individual clients. During his tenure on the Southern Shores town council his voting record on residential lot coverage and building size zoning ordinances has been favorable to construction of larger homes and therefore favorable to the developers.

    I do not presume to understand Mr. Nason’s motives for these votes and do not suggest that he made those votes to curry favor with existing or potential clients. He may have voted his conscience without regard to other factors and deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt regarding motive. But that leaves citizens with the doubt or the potential for conflict of interest. The best way to have avoided the potential or appearance of a conflict of interest would have been to recuse from voting on those ordinances.

    Mr. Nason may have avoided a direct conflict of interest regarding 98 Ocean Boulevard, but residents of Southern Shores might ask: has he avoided the potential for a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest in general?

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