The waste land | News Feature | Indy Week

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The waste land

The people of Lincoln Heights live among three city dumps. This is the story of their war on trash.



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Former Mayor Drewery Beale said that during his tenure the city didn't consider any other locations for the waste transfer station except Lincoln Heights. "If the waste transfer station is run properly," he said, "I don't see it as a hazard to the community."

Lincoln Heights residents had little say in whether they thought it would be a hazard. Minutes from a March 2010 retreat for city officials indicate their reluctance to include the public, or even county officials, in their decision-making on the waste transfer station.

According to retreat minutes, Councilwoman Suetta Scarbrough asked if "there is a certain level of expenditures that the City could spend without a public hearing."

City Manager Sabiston responded, "A public hearing could be good for some kinds of things, but ... a public hearing on this [waste transfer station] is a bad idea."

Four months later, minutes from another council meeting show that Councilman Ernest Bobbitt supported keeping communication open with Halifax County, but he reiterated he thought the city could handle the project on its own without "having other hands in it" or "any other entities involved in this project."

When the Indy contacted James Pierce, chairman of the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, he declined to comment, saying, "Sorry I have no statement to make at this time."

While Lincoln Heights residents often attended Roanoke Rapids City Council meetings on the waste transfer station, they had no official standing before the board. They can't vote in mayoral or city council elections because Lincoln Heights is outside of the Roanoke Rapids city limits. And Roanoke Rapids wants to keep it that way.

State laws allow municipalities to decide what areas they will annex—generally middle-class or wealthy neighborhoods, not places like Lincoln Heights. In return for collecting property taxes, a municipality provides city services such as police protection, street lights and public services to a neighborhood.

At one time, Roanoke Rapids had considered annexing Lincoln Heights. The neighborhood was located in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction, the purpose of which is to prepare a community for eventual annexation within 10 years. Roanoke Rapids kept Lincoln Heights in the ETJ for 31 years before removing it in 2003.

William "Bubble" Pugh, a primary landowner in Lincoln Heights, reportedly rebuffed the city's interest in annexing the neighborhood because of the potential tax increase on his properties. However, he died in 1983, 20 years before Roanoke Rapids kicked Lincoln Heights out of its ETJ.

The city contends it removed Lincoln Heights from the ETJ because the community was growing too slowly, officials say. There aren't enough housing inspectors to investigate all of the abandoned homes, said Roanoke Rapids' planning and development director, George W. Gurley Jr.

In 2001, a city report showed Lincoln Heights would bring in $161,000 in annual tax revenue, but would cost the city $337,750. Just the first year of providing municipal services to Lincoln Heights would cost the city $694,935—still far less than the annual debt payment on the Roanoke Rapids Theater. (Lincoln Heights residents have been on public water and sewer since 1973, but they do not get trash pickup.)

The next year, city officials eyed city-owned land in Lincoln Heights as the site for the waste transfer station.

The Indy asked Roanoke Rapids Councilman Ernest Bobbitt if the city would reconsider annexing Lincoln Heights. He shrugged and said, "That would cost too much money."

Neighborhoods such as Lincoln Heights are known as "excluded communities," so called because they are denied basic services and have little or no input into government decisions about their quality of life.

Exclusion is a serious problem for minority communities in North Carolina and has led to economic underdevelopment and social and political isolation. The Cedar Grove Institute of Sustainable Communities, located in Mebane, identified 28 excluded communities in North Carolina in 2005. More recent data is expected after the U.S. Census releases its final figures.

"Excluded communities often experience higher crime rates and become targets for criminal activity by offenders from other areas," says Dorosin of the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

For Camel Lee Brinkley, the former dump near her home isn't her primary concern. She frets over the wooded paths that run through the old landfill and lead to dilapidated houses on Godley Street where drug dealers and prostitutes consort within 200 feet of her home.

The city provides no street lights; the nearest one is more than 100 feet from Brinkley's home. It was installed by her cousin.

"You don't have street lights if you don't pay for your own light," Brinkley said. "If you don't have money for a street light, you're gonna be in the dark from dusk until dawn."

Florine Bell says the area needs the city's help to rebuild. "If Lincoln Heights was annexed, the city would aggressively pursue cleaning up these abandoned houses," said Bell, adding that street lights, more regular police patrols and paved roads would boost the community's neglected image. (The Halifax County Sheriff's Department covers Lincoln Heights.)

While the abandoned houses are beyond Roanoke Rapids' jurisdiction, Halifax County has not enforced housing codes that would require tearing down dilapidated structures. According to Halifax County Planning Director Chris Rountree, the county employs only two housing inspectors, and investigates houses only when there are complaints.

Condemnation of properties, however, takes time. "It's a long process, because it's difficult to get up with property owners," he said, "and sometimes the whole process can end up in court." Last year, Rountree's department began listing some of the properties in Lincoln Heights that needed to be torn down.

Some responsibility for the conditions in Lincoln Heights rests with property owners who have left the houses to rot or are renting out shoddy living quarters. W.H. Rightmyer owns and operates Rightmyer Machine Rentals, a business licensed in North Carolina and Virginia that specializes in commercial and residential grading, asphalt paving and cement mixing. He also owns a large portion of Lincoln Heights.

In 1980, Rightmyer bought the old landfill property adjacent to Brinkley's home. He also owns more than a dozen lots and homes, some of which he rents; others he has abandoned. The Indy has left numerous messages with Rightmyer's office, but he has not returned calls.

In 1994, Rightmyer did donate one of his buildings to the Lincoln Heights Community Improvement Coalition and didn't charge them rent for 12 years. The coalition moved its operations to the Lincoln Heights Apostolic Church of God in 2006.

"He recognized the many social programs and change taking place in Lincoln Heights," Bell said. "As a way of giving and helping the community, he decided to donate the building and land during that time."

State and local officials have largely ignored Lincoln Heights' pleas for help in cleaning up the neighborhood. "I think that all citizens need good housing," said former Roanoke Rapids Mayor Beale, who called the community "a tough area."

"But I reckon the homeowners will have to be the ones to make that happen."

Landowner Bob Lyons turned to DENR for help. He said DENR told him that because his acreage is over a dump, laws restrict what can be built on it. Moreover, DENR told Lyons it is his responsibility to conduct an assessment of the site and clean it up, even though he didn't own the land when it was a dump, nor did he operate the landfill. To assess the site and the extent of any contamination, Lyons would have to open an investigation with DENR. After months of studies, DENR would compile a report and tell him what is necessary for the cleanup. Lyons would have to front the money; he would not be reimbursed until DENR approved his improvements.

"If Mr. Lyons chooses to fully cooperate, he will not have to conduct this work at his expense," says Cheryl Marks, preregulatory landfill unit supervisor of the Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch, Superfund Section in Raleigh. "It is important for the property owner to cooperate with the investigative efforts."

"The city has allowed people to build their family's homes on waste," Lyons said, "and you can tell something is wrong with those houses because mortar joints have cracked, and they are starting to fall apart.

"For the past 40 years, they've done nothing to improve anything in Lincoln Heights," he added. "It's all black, and [the city] has left it alone and always have, and now I'm stuck with the [city's] mess."

The Environmental Protection Agency has helped communities like Lincoln Heights across the Southeast to revitalize their neighborhoods through grants. But according to Dawn Harris-Young, spokesperson for EPA's Region 4, which oversees North Carolina, DENR is the go-to agency for Lincoln Heights residents. "In dealing with landfills, DENR is delegated to do that work, and they have the expertise to examine the issue," she said.

State legislators have said that they are concerned about Lincoln Heights. Yet they have done nothing concrete to address its problems. At a City Council meeting last August, state Sen. Ed Jones and state Rep. Angela Bryant, both Democrats representing Halifax County, addressed Roanoke Rapids officials about Lincoln Heights.

Jones said he was concerned by "some of the problems" in Lincoln Heights, while Bryant urged the council to encourage public input in the site selection process. She also said that the city needed to consider how a transfer station would further burden the already beleaguered area. Bryant added that even if the transfer station did not go through, she wanted the city "to look at doing something for the Lincoln Heights community."

Frustrated, Bell contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages federal programs to help communities improve derelict housing conditions, in November. Last month, Randall Gore, North Carolina director for rural development, visited Lincoln Heights. He noted that many people there live in substandard homes. Other properties are uninhabitable. Gore recommended that those structures be repaired or torn down.

"I was hurt by the conditions of Lincoln Heights," Gore told the Indy. "Ms. Bell is on a one-woman crusade to make change happen, and we're going to see what we can do to help her."

The USDA could assist property owners through its Section 504 loan and grant program, which extends 1 percent loans over 20 years to low-income or elderly residents.

Gore also took the Roanoke Rapids officials to task. "The city has been hedging for some time," Gore said. He pointed out that the city's debt, which includes costs related to the theater's construction, has influenced its lack of assistance to the community. "They won't gain a lot as it relates to the tax base if they included Lincoln Heights."

USDA funding could be cut during the federal budget process, but Gore said Halifax County could still receive assistance money. "We've done some preliminary studies and determined if Congress cuts back on the dollars we appropriate, we will put our dollars in the hardest hit counties. Halifax County is on that list."

Gore has invited Rep. Bryant, Sen. Jones, Roanoke Rapids City Manager Paul Sabiston, Halifax County Commissioner James Pierce and Halifax County Manger Tony Brown to a Feb. 21 meeting to discuss the community's options.

"We are trying to get all the players in the same room and see what the ideal possibilities are for the community," Gore said, describing housing in Lincoln Heights as "not very far removed from being like third-world conditions."

Gore said the USDA can encourage the county and city to do the right thing. "Sometimes you can shame people to do better," he said, "and we want to see what amends can be made to heal the woes that are there."

At a Dec. 7, 2010, City Council meeting, Bell and a handful of Lincoln Heights residents waited for the public discussion of the transfer station. Anticipating a lengthy struggle, Bell had already organized dozens of residents to join her in a march of quiet protest over the city's public hearing on the transfer station.

The atmosphere was tense as Dreitzler, the lead engineer on the waste transfer station, informed council members that the proposed site on Hinson Street in Lincoln Heights ranked poorly on transportation, topography and proximity to cultural communities. The council voted to remove Hinson Street from the list of possible locations, although the city is still committed to building one.

Beale is adamant that if he were still mayor he would have fought to keep the transfer station on Hinson Street. "It could have brought in a lot of revenue for the city," he said.

Peter Gilbert, of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, called the removal of Hinson Street from the list an important victory for the community. "When you are in a hole, the first thing you have to do is stop digging," Gilbert said. "By stopping this waste transfer station we have stopped Roanoke Rapids from bringing another environmental hazard into this excluded community; now we must start to clean up all of the city's waste and illegal dumping from the last 50 years. It is time for Roanoke Rapids to acknowledge the Lincoln Heights community as part of the city, to provide the same services other residents of Roanoke Rapids receive and to take responsibility for decades of dumping and exclusion."

Although Bell is relieved, she remains focused on what is left to accomplish—what she calls the redemption of "the Heights." "This community could be a shining light," she said, "and I'm not going to stop until Lincoln Heights is restored and cleaned up."

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