Winston-Salem council urges citizens to express outrage to state lawmakers on guns in parks

People stand to express opposition to a state law denying municipalities authority to regulate concealed guns in parks.
Winston-Salem City Council voted to update its local ordinances to reflect legislative changes by the NC General Assembly to expand the areas in city parks that citizens can carry concealed firearms to playgrounds, greenways, and biking and walking trails, but under protest.

The vote gave people on both sides of the gun-control debate an opportunity to vent their feelings.

City Attorney Angela Carmon said that under the state law passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly this year, the only areas that cities may prohibit concealed firearms are playing fields, and then only under certain circumstances such as when games are scheduled. She said that if the city failed to make the update, the entire ordinance could become unenforceable.

"This issue is not about the Second Amendment, which all of us up here support," said Councilman Dan Besse, a Democrat who represents the Southwest Ward. "It's not about the right to own guns to protect yourself in your home and your family. It's not even about the right to have a concealed-carry permit. This is about forcing concealed guns on the rest of the community in our parks and greenways and public spaces."

Besse called the state legislation "wrong-headed and dangerous." Councilwoman Molly Leight, a Democrat who represents the South Ward, piled on by saying it was "ignoble" and "goes against any logic."

Council approved the amendment to the ordinance by a vote of 7 to 1, with Councilwoman Derwin Montgomery, a Democrat representing the East Ward in dissent. Councilman James Taylor Jr., a Democrat representing the Southeast Ward, said he wished he could abstain, but his vote counted as a yes.

A dozen or so supporters of gun-owner rights, including Pat Kleinmaier, a Republican candidate for the North Ward seat on council, gathered outside City Hall before the meeting. Some wore stickers stating "Guns save lives." A security officer Lankford Protective Services told them they could not carry signs into council chamber, and some citizens voluntarily surrendered their poster-board props to him. The meeting drew both gun rights supporters and gun-control advocates, who filled council chamber and a committee room set up with a live video feed to accommodate overflow. Police said about 85 people showed up for the meeting.

Brian Reese of Kernersville, who said he spends time in Winston-Salem doing business, was one of the few gun-rights supporters who spoke during the public comment period.

"I see it as an individual's right to life," he said. "I as an individual want to make sure I stand a fighting chance to survive any encounter that I come across. So it's not the Second Amendment trumping property rights. To me, it's an individual's right to life.... It's that .38 revolver that gives a four-foot, 90-pound woman a fighting chance against a guy my size. It's a great equalizer."

The city council also passed a resolution expressing opposition to the state law. Council members note that the city's greenway system is composed of easements granted by private property owners, and City Manager Lee Garrity said the law is silent on whether the property owners retroactively ceded their right to prohibit concealed firearms on their property when they granted easements to the city.

The resolution reads, in part: "It is extremely imperative that citizens and members of the North Carolina General Assembly understand that Session Law 2013-369 not only arrogates control of municipalities over their own parks but it creates potential conflict between private property owners and greenway users wishing to carry concealed weapons."

Garrity added that the city parks are supported by city funds paid by city taxpayers, and that the city is liable if anyone is injured in a fall.

Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, a Democrat who represents the Northwest Ward, apologized to constituents who conveyed easements without knowing that they were potentially allowing greenway users to bring firearms on their property.

The resolution goes on to urge citizens who have expressed outrage over the city's inability to prohibit concealed handguns in its parks to share their concerns with state lawmakers.

Republican state lawmakers from Forsyth County, including Reps. Debra Conrad and Donny Lambeth, pledged to clarify the legislation as it affected greenways during a joint meeting with council members earlier this year, but stopped short of saying they would restore the city's authority to regulate guns in its park system.

Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, a Democrat who represents the Northeast Ward, expressed scorn for the Republican-controlled legislature, stating, "It's an embarrassment to say you're from the state of North Carolina because of the behavior of some of these people in Raleigh," but then went on to vote against the resolution. She joined Councilwoman Denise D. Adams, a Democrat who represents the North Ward, and Councilman Robert Clark, a Republican who represents the West Ward.

Clark, like many of his colleagues, said he objected to the state legislature seizing authority from local government, but explained his objection to the resolution as tactical.

"Charlotte picked a fight with Raleigh, and they no longer control their airport," he said. "Asheville picked a fight with Raleigh, and they no longer control their water system. If we pick a fight against Raleigh, we could end up losing control of our parks. I just think the old adage applies that you don't bring a knife to a gunfight."

City council also approved $4 million in incentives to Wake Forest University Health Sciences for expansion of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter on the eastern flank of downtown. Specifically, the funds will be used by Wexford Equities LLC to develop a 230,000 sf lab and office facility and parking deck at the northeast corner of East 5th and Vine streets in the space formerly occupied by Reynolds Tobacco's Building 90 South.

Under the deal, the city would provide payments equal to 65 percent of the net taxes paid by the owner over an 18-year period. Deputy City Manager Derwick Paige said the incentives would be paid annually and only after the tax payments were received. The non-profit owner also agrees to keep the property on the tax rolls for an additional 20 years after the initial 18-year period. Mayor Allen Joines said that combining $2.3 million in tax revenue in the first 18 years and $7 million in the next 20-year period, the city would gain an almost $10 million in the deal.

Taylor said the deal would not have happened without incentives from the city.

In other action, city council approved a plan to move forward with the creation of three district police stations, although Merschel noted that the resolution does not commit any city funds to the initiative. The resolution also identified the Lucia building as the facility to house the district station in the southeast part of the city.

The council also voted to rename Civic Plaza — bounded by 3rd, Street, 4th Street, Town Run Lane and the Strollway — in honor of Merschel, who is retiring from council at the end of this year.

The resolution cited Merschel for being the first woman appointed to chair the city council's finance committee, helping the city garner recognition for maintaining the lowest combined tax and fee structure of any major city in North Carolina, along with supporting downtown initiatives such as "Restaurant Row," BB&T Ballpark and the downtown business improvement district.

Merschel wiped away tears as the resolutions was read.

"I've gone through 16 of the most difficult budgets in this city's history and never cried," Merschel said. "But I am honored and I am humbled. I can think of no greater honor than to have a green space in our community's living room that will bear my family's name."

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