SCC National Championship, Knollwood Rezoning Among Top Stories of 2012
By David Sinclair
There is little debate, based on balloting by members of The Pilot news staff, that the Sandhills Community College Flyers' basketball national championship was one of the biggest stories of 2012.
The Flyers' remarkable run to the NJCAA championship in New York state last March was not only a great source of pride for SCC but also the community as a whole. The team returned to a hero's welcome that included a parade through downtown Southern Pines.
In a departure from past years when news staff members ranked the Top 10 news stories in order of magnitude, this year members voted for the ones they felt were the biggest from a list of 21 nominees. The Flyers winning the national championship had the distinction of being the only one named on every ballot.
Nearly a unanimous choice: the Southern Pines Town Council's approval of the rezoning for 558 acres adjacent to Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in November for a major new development. The vote capped months of debate about the zoning for what is known as the Knollwood Tract.
Another subject of sometimes heated debate, the future of vacant land adjacent to the county veterans memorial in Carthage, was also among the top stories. When news surfaced in May that Bojangles' Corp. was looking at buying land adjacent to the memorial on U.S. 15-501 in Carthage, veterans protested. They want the land protected from development. The county formed a committee, but little headway has been made.
Fracking, which was also among the top stories of 2011, is back on this year's list. In March, a state draft report recommended legalizing hydraulic fracturing - commonly known as fracking - in the state. The debate continued to rage as the state legislature approved fracking bills this summer and overrode a gubernatorial veto.
The issue is important to northern Moore County, which lies atop the Deep River Basin, where state geologists believe a 40-year supply of natural gas exists.
Another carryover from last year's Top 10 was planned improvement to the Village Green in downtown Pinehurst. The village's Historic Preservation Commission rejected plans to renovate the sand parking lot and Tufts Memorial Garden this summer. The Village Council appealed and ultimately prevailed.
Two entries from Carthage made the top 10 - the opening of a new Walmart Express - big news for all of northern Moore County - and the indictment of former Police Chief Chris McKenzie and his wife on embezzlement charges.
The list also includes the tragic deaths of two young men. Lance Bullock, who had been missing for nearly two weeks, was found in an abandoned rock quarry in the Glendon area in June. An arrest was made in the murder a week later.
In October, family and friends said a final farewell and tribute to Staff Sgt. Justin C. Marquez. The 25-year-old Army Special Forces soldier from Aberdeen was killed while on patrol with a fellow unit member in Afghanistan earlier in October.
The year also brought a prestigious honor to the town of Southern Pines, which was named an All-America City in July for a comprehensive community campaign to improve reading for children.
Several stories that received votes but didn't make the top 10 included the arrest of Melissa Rovnak in the 2002 murder of her former husband in Aberdeen, and the tragic death of newly appointed interim county manager Jim Westbrook in a Nov. 27 traffic accident.
Here are the capsules of the top 10 news stories of 2012 in chronological order.
In March, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) issued a draft report that recommends legalizing hydraulic fracturing - commonly known as fracking - in the state.
"After reviewing other studies and experiences in oil- and gas-producing states, DENR believes that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place," the draft report said. "It will be important to have those measures in place before issuing permits for hydraulic fracturing in North Carolina's shale formations."
Critics contend that DENR was given too little time and money to study the issue adequately.
During the General Assembly's short session this summer, Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed fracking legislation, citing the General Assembly's unwillingness to ensure that adequate protections for drinking water, landowners, county and municipal governments, and the health and safety of families are in place before fracking begins.
The House and Senate voted to override the veto, but the deciding vote in the House turned out to be accidental.
State Rep. Becky Carney, a Mecklenburg County Democrat who opposes fracking, pushed the wrong button and voted with Republicans to override Perdue's veto of Senate Bill 820. Carney tried to change her vote, but a parliamentary maneuver by House Republicans prevented her from doing so. The move outraged environmental groups.
"Our drinking water has now been put at risk, even though the required three-fifths of the members did not want to override," said Molly Diggins, state director of the N.C. Sierra Club. "How ironic that in an industry plagued with accidents, hydraulic fracturing - or fracking - became legal in North Carolina based on an accidental vote."
The bill creates an Energy and Mining Commission that will conduct studies and create regulations to govern fracking. The commission is tasked with completing its work by October 2014. The General Assembly would then have to take a separate vote to approve the commission's work before drilling could be permitted.
SCC National Champions
Students, faculty and staff of Sandhills Community College had a unifying sense of elation in late March following the college basketball team's national championship victory in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y.
The Sandhills Flyers, in just their fourth season, defeated the Cedar Valley Community College Suns of Dallas County, Texas, 101-86 in the finals of the NJCAA District III Men's Basketball Tournament March 17. The Flyers are the first North Carolina team to win the championship.
"I am very tired, and am basically running on fumes, but it is for a very good cause," said Sandhills President John Dempsey soon after his return from New York, where he attended the game. "Everyone here on campus, including myself, is very excited and happy for the team, the coach and the college."
Ranked sixth in an NJCAA Division III poll, the Flyers won their quarterfinal and semifinal games by just one point each before defeating the Suns in the championship game.
The team and coaches returned to a jubilant celebration at the college on March 21. Cheering students, staff, faculty members and others packed the Dempsey Student Center to honor the players and coaches
Head coach Mike Apple praised his players, the coaching staff and team supporters for their efforts.
"I am very happy and very proud," Apple said. "As a Moore County native, seeing all these people I have known for years who are out here celebrating our victory is extremely moving. This is a real community thing, and a great event."
The Carthage Town Board learned in mid-April that a new kind of Walmart was coming to the county seat.
It is a Walmart Express, which has been jokingly called a "Walmart Jr.," but in fact has its own unique characteristics. The stocking plan is different, and many prices are actually lower than at the big stores.
It's the giant chain's way of joining the feeding frenzy of value-focused buyers flooding to lower-priced places like Fred's, Dollar General or Family Dollar. This is one of the first 15 to 20 Walmart Express stores.
"From a customer's perspective, it has much of what a supercenter has without having to walk way across the building 40 miles to get what you need," store manager Kim Whitehead said about a week before the store opened last month.
Carthage and northern Moore County gave a rousing welcome to the store during a big grand opening ceremony Nov. 14.
"We are delighted about Walmart being here," Carthage Mayor Lee McGraw said during the ceremony. "We thank every business that comes to Carthage. We appreciate you, so thank you."
In mid-May, news surfaced that Bojangles' Corp. was looking at buying land adjacent to the county veterans memorial on U.S. 15-501 in Carthage, touching off protests by local veterans.
Veterans, who call the area "sacred ground," came before the commissioners at meetings in June and July seeking assurances that land will remain vacant. They have sought to prevent any development and proposed jointly owning the site with the county.
The commissioners, hoping to alleviate veterans' concerns, agreed in August to form a joint committee with them to discuss the site's future. The full committee has met one time, as has a subcommittee. But no real progress has been made on a solution. Veterans have accused the county commissioners of stalling.
Commissioner Jimmy Melton, a member of the committee, characterized the idea that the county was stalling as "pure nonsense."
"Our number one goal is to protect the memorial, and nothing is going to happen to that property until the Advisory Council decides what will be done," he said in October. "It takes time to get this done, and stalling is not something we are intentionally doing."
Commissioners' Chairman Larry Caddell said in October, "This is a valuable piece of property. We want to take time to make a decision about it. Since the board has made a motion, a second, and a unanimous vote not to sell it at this time, what is the big hurry? We just want to protect the monument."
Veterans have been skeptical.
Lance Bullock Murder
On June 25, the body of 34-year-old Lance Bullock was discovered in a remote rock quarry in the Glendon area. He had been shot to death, according to the Moore County Sheriff's Office.
Bullock had been reported missing 11 days earlier.
"He was loved by everyone who knew him and for him to die a violent death is shocking to all of us," his mother, Donna Ford, said. "He had an easygoing, laid-back way he approached life. He was a gentle soul who was taken from us far too soon."
Bullock's family reported him missing to Southern Pines police on June 18 after he failed to meet them at a local restaurant a day prior. Southern Pines police said that Bullock was last reported seen playing disc golf at Reservoir Park on June 13.
Prior to finding Bullock, authorities located his black Honda two-door coupe near Deep River Park in Sanford, just inside the Lee County line. The location of the vehicle was about five miles from where the body was found, authorities said.
About a month after Bullock's body was found, sheriff's deputies arrested 32-year-old Ricky Joe Harvel, of Eagle Springs, in connection with the slaying. He was charged with one count of murder and two counts of possession of a firearm by a felon.
Authorities said the two men knew each other but declined to specify a motive.
Southern Pines was named an All-America City on July 2 for a comprehensive campaign to improve reading developed by a broad coalition of business, government and civic leaders.
The town was among 14 winners of the prestigious award, sponsored by the National Civic League, presented Monday during the Grade-Level Reading Communities Network Conference and All-America City Award celebration in Denver.
The awards were presented to communities that have developed the most comprehensive, realistic and sustainable plans to increase grade-level reading proficiency by the end of third grade.
The town was nominated for its Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Community Network, a collective strategy designed to engage the community in the learning process. Called Southern Pines Grows Great Readers, the campaign dovetails with the schools' slogan, "Growing to Greatness."
"The importance of our proposal in support of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading goes far beyond this one award," said Southern Pines Library Director Lynn Thompson, who was in Denver for the presentation. "The real winners will be all the children in our schools who will benefit from the combined efforts of all the partners who developed our plan and will be implementing it in the months and years to come."
Southern Pines Mayor David McNeill said it was "fantastic" that the town won such a prestigious designation.
"I think the award recognizes what a great community this is to live in," McNeill said. "I congratulate everyone who has worked so hard on this project, but the kids are the real winners. The efforts that they will put forth to improve their reading skills will benefit them for a lifetime."
A former Carthage police chief and his wife were indicted in early August on numerous felony charges. The indictments against Chris and Allison McKenzie include separate counts of embezzlement and related offenses.
Allison McKenzie is charged in connection with the theft of more than $350,000 from a local dentist.
Chris McKenzie, the former chief, is accused in court documents of using a town credit card to buy goods for his own use in May and July 2011. On July 21, 2011, he is alleged to have used a town gasoline key "to obtain gasoline for his privately owned automobile from the Moore County gasoline pumps" for personal use. Each charge of embezzlement was accompanied by a charge of larceny by employee and obtaining property by false pretense.
Allison McKenzie's charges stem from a theft at the dental office of Dr. G.R. Horton from 2005 to 2008. According to the indictments, she collected cash payments made by patients but did not deposit them, "instead misappropriating the cash" for her own use.
Chris McKenzie was Carthage's police chief for nearly a decade and got international attention in March 2009 following the nursing home murders at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center. Media swarmed the town after Robert Kenneth Stewart shot and killed a nurse and seven elderly patients, some in beds and wheelchairs.
Mourners packed the Old Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen on Oct. 15 to say a final farewell and tribute to Staff Sgt. Justin C. Marquez.
The 25-year-old Army Special Forces soldier from Aberdeen was killed while on patrol with a fellow unit member in Afghanistan earlier in October.
Marquez, and Warrant Officer Joseph L. Schiro, 27, of Coral Springs, Fla., were in the Chak district of Wardak Province, Afghanistan. They died from wounds received from small-arms fire, the Army said. Both were assigned to the 1st Special Forces Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), out of Fort Bragg.
At the church, the roar of Patriot Guard motorcycles heralded the arrival of a cortege that had made its way from Boles Funeral Home in Southern Pines. It traveled down U.S. 1, where American flags lined the way, and traffic was stopped and pulled over to honor the fallen soldier.
The funeral coach bearing a flag-draped casket carrying Marquez was pulled by a motorcycle.
Speaking about his son, Mark Marquez told the crowds inside the church and those listening outside on speakers how much their presence meant.
"Special Forces is what my son aspired to," he said. "For my son - my wife's son, and his twin brother - he was our son and brother first. He was more than a Special Forces soldier. He was clearly a community member ... I gave him to the military. He was a soldier. I would like everybody to celebrate Justin Marquez's life. I think he deserves this acknowledgement."
Army Maj. Gen. Ed Reeder offered each the "thanks of a grateful nation" for the loyal, courageous service of their fallen warrior.
Later, as people passed by to speak with members of the family, the general praised Marquez, calling him a fine Special Forces warrior.
"He was a great Green Beret," the general said. "We will miss him dearly, but we will never forget him."
The Southern Pines Town Council on Nov. 13 approved rezoning 558 acres adjacent to Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club for a major new development, capping months of debate.
The Bell family, which owns the land, said it will now reach out to potential developers.
The undeveloped land, known as the Knollwood Tract, is located near the intersection of U.S. 1 and N.C. 22. It is the same tract that was the center of a major confrontation five years ago when the proposed Pine Needles Village development was defeated.
The Knollwood Tract is currently envisioned to include a 300- to 400-room hotel, an 18-hole golf course, up to 350,000 square feet of retail space, up to 100,000 square feet of office and commercial space, as many as 300 assisted living units, and up to 300 homes.
Future development of the site will be reviewed as new projects are proposed within it.
Council member Chris Smithson, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said the council was not taking its time to examine the overall proposal more closely. He said the question before the council was not whether the Knollwood Tract should be developed to a fairly high intensity.
"The question tonight is whether this property will develop in a way that is consistent with our adopted plans and in a way that benefits the property owner and the community overall," he said. "We don't have the information we need in order to make an informed decision in confirmation of that."
But council member Mike Fields said, "I just don't know that you can get a perfect plan at this stage, especially when there's no developer. I think it might become economically unfeasible if we put in too many regulations on it now. We need flexibility."
Council member Jim Simeon said that, in the long run, the project "will be a positive addition to the town of Southern Pines. This will only enhance our reputation as a destination."
Village Green Plan
Renovation of Pinehurst's sand parking lot and the Tufts Memorial Garden will move ahead after months of legal wrangling that delayed the project.
The Pinehurst Historic Preservation Commission unanimously approved a certificate of appropriateness for the project Dec. 20, more than five months after the project came before the board and was originally rejected. That denial set in motion a string of appeals and legal consultations that cost the village $33,198 in fees split among four attorneys.
The Village Council will hold a hearing of the project's site plan at a Jan. 8 meeting.
The Pinehurst Historic Preservation Commission on June 29 rejected plans for improving the Village Green, calling it "incongruous" with the Historic District, citing concerns with the number of trees to be removed in the plan and the encroachment of the sand parking lot into the Village Green.
The Village Council voted July 24 to appeal the commission's ruling to the Board of Adjustment rather than revise the plan. The Board of Adjustment voted unanimously on Oct. 4 to order the village's Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) to reverse a prior decision and issue a certificate of appropriateness for the planned improvements.
"I am hopeful that the HPC feels they did their job," Mayor Nancy Fiorillo said the day after the board issued its ruling. "But as the elected council, we felt there was overwhelming support for the project, and we felt an appeal was the only way to move forward."
She assured that, moving forward, the project would be carefully carried out.
Village Council members have said they want to complete the planned improvements before June 2014, when Pinehurst hosts the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open in consecutive weeks.
Senior Writer Tom Embrey and Staff Writers John Chappell, John Lentz and Ted Natt Jr. contributed to this report.
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