Development group files legal case against Greenville, claims misconduct by officials

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – Landmark Development, based in Athens, GA, has filed a legal case against the city of Greenville claiming misconduct by members of Greenville’s City Council and Planning and Zoning Board.

WNCT examined court documents filed in the case. Included are sworn depositions given by councilman and current mayoral candidate Calvin Mercer and Planning and Zoning Board Members Hap Maxwell, Anthony Herring and Betsy Leech.

The case stems from a May Planning and Zoning meeting that was supposed to be handled in a quasi-judicial fashion, which meant board members could only make decisions based on facts presented to them that night, and they couldn’t have any communication with either side of the issue prior to the meeting.

However, court documents reveal that some of the board was unaware the meeting was being carried out in this manner. Both Maxwell and Herring admitted to meeting with Tom Taft, a property developer himself, who is against the Landmark Project.

“The trend is clearly for new student housing all around the country to be close to campus,” Taft said.

In sworn testimony, Herring said he met with Taft leading up to the meeting and was shown property sites around the city. Maxwell said he met Taft for drinks at Winslow’s prior to the meeting.

But Taft said at no time was he trying to sway their opinions on the Landmark project. He argues he’s against it because he fears too much student housing, but not because he fears competition for his own student development currently being built on 10th St.

After disclosing the meetings with Taft, City Attorney Dave Holec asked members of the board if they could still vote with an unbiased opinion, to which they answered yes.

“There was clear misunderstanding of quasi-judicial role in terms of what should be considered,” said Mark Jensen, VP of Development for Landmark.

At the center of the controversy is a proposed student housing development Landmark wants to build along Charles Blvd. near Firetower Rd.

Landmark was requesting the Planning and Zoning board re-zone the land to allow four unrelated occupants to live in cottage-like structures.

Landmark could have four unrelated occupants if they were building a traditional apartment complex, but since the cottages would be standing alone from one another, their request required approval.

“We feel very strong about the product we have and what we would like to do within the community,” Jensen said.

Within the court documents, Landmark also alleges councilman and current Greenville mayoral candidate, Calvin Mercer of putting politics before his votes. When the project initially came up during a March City Council meeting, Mercer voted no, indicating his concern for too much student housing.

“I don’t think that we should pull back from our commitment before it’s in place,” Mercer said.

During a sworn testimony, attorneys for Landmark Development alleged Mercer was voting for winners and losers in the student housing market. Below is a transcript of the Mercer deposition:

“Attorney: Is it proper for a public servant to case a vote against one real estate development to protect a second real estate development from competition? I just want to be sure I understand your answer to that.

Mercer: All things being equal, no. But in this case, all things were not equal, and I’ve explained the complications of that vote.”

Landmark argues that Mercer was voting no to their project to protect Taft’s development. Taft is a supporter and donor of Mercer’s campaign for mayor.

Mercer, and others, were concerned about the added traffic on Charles Blvd. with the proposed construction. The city’s traffic engineer said traffic wouldn’t be negatively impacted, as students don’t traditionally travel a lot during the typical rush hour.

Mercer said the case has been going on for months and is now just coming to light to try and smear his mayoral campaign.

“Sometimes when companies don’t get what they want, they sue the city,” he said.

WNCT reached out to Greenville’s attorney Dave Holec, but was told he would have no comment.

The two sides are set to meet in a Pitt County courtroom on November 13.

To read Mercer’s deposition, click here.

To read Maxwell’s deposition, click here.

To read Herring’s deposition, click here.

To read the case file, click here.

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