BEAUFORT — The future of the Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market could be in jeopardy following county commissioners’ decision to stop allowing the courthouse to serve as the market’s venue.
County commissioners made the 4-1 vote during their Monday evening regular session at the administration building. County Chairperson Mark Mansfield cast the sole dissenting vote, while commissioners Jimmy Farrington and Bill Smith were not present.
County Manager Tommy Burns presented the issue to commissioners toward the end of their meeting. Mr. Burns detailed a recent incident that he said put the county on the line for an insurance claim.
“Recently we were faced with a liability situation where (the farmers’ market insurance providers) refused to pay a claim,” Mr. Burns said.
The claim stems from an incident earlier this year on June 17 in which Forsyth County resident Carol Dillon fell at the farmers’ market.
Although the agreement between the county and Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market shields the county from liability, the county was included as a defendant in the ensuing lawsuit.
“That will affect our insurance because we will have a deductible,” Mr. Burns said.
The county’s deductible is $10,000 per claim. Mr. Burns said the county having to possibly defend a claim, and pay a $10,000 deductible, translates to a breach of contract on the farmers’ market’s part.
“Part of the conditions for the market’s use of the county property was to purchase adequate insurance and hold the county harmless for any claims incurred by the market operating on County property,” Mr. Burns wrote in an email to further clarify the matter. “Today (Tuesday) the County notified the market registered agent and market manager that the county voted to no longer allow the market to use the county property, effective immediately.”
Commissioner Ed Wheatly agreed, saying that though he supports what the farmers’ market has done in the Beaufort community, their insurance coverage is troubling.
“We now know that their insurance company has defaulted on the claim for the incident that happened several months ago. So, in my opinion, their insurance is null and void. Although I’m in favor a farmers’ market, I am also in favor of them having the proper insurance to hold us harmless when these things might occur during a farmers’ market.”
Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market Manager Cindy Bunch challenged this assertion, saying that, to her knowledge there has been no lawsuit and the farmers’ market is continuing to work with the injured person. Documents provided by the county say otherwise.
A letter to Mr. Burns from Ms. Dillon’s attorney Everett Hancock states that the insurance providers for the Olde Beaufort Farmers Market have opted not to pay damages.
“We notified the Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market of our involvement in this matter and Selective Insurance Company responded and has denied liability asserting that the county was responsible for the incident,” it reads.
The agreement between the farmers’ market and the county was set to expire at the end of this calendar year. The farmers’ market still intended to hold its final holiday-themed night market later this month.
Mr. Mansfield wondered if it was proper to revoke use of the courthouse before the end of the month. Commissioner Robin Comer said the county couldn’t afford to wait and risk another injury, particularly at a nighttime event.
“I was on the board when that thing started up,” Mr. Comer said about the farmers’ market. “I was not in favor of it then … it didn’t seem like a good thing to do from a liability standpoint. Secondly, we were also told there would be no liability from the county to service, clean up or do anything for (the farmers’ market). You’re telling me they are having a nighttime (event) and they are out there putting up power boxes and running conduits?”
Mr. Comer suggested commissioners opt to immediately “cease and desist.”
“I have no intention of voting (to renew a contract with the farmers’ market), no way,” Mr. Comer said.
The announcement came as a surprise to Ms. Bunch, who was in the midst of planning for the holiday market. Ms. Bunch, along with other market officials, learned of the board’s decision Tuesday.
“I was not informed about the fact that it was going to be discussed at the meeting last night,” Mr. Bunch said.
Although tight-lipped about much of the matter, Ms. Bunch said she regrets what she described as a lack of communication between the county board and market officials. She is holding out hope that some sort of agreement can be hashed out between the two groups.
“I’m not about burning bridges, I’m about creating new opportunities,” Ms. Bunch said.
In the meantime, Ms. Bunch said that regardless of what ultimately happens, the Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market will continue in some capacity.
“This is not necessarily the end of the farmers’ market, no,” Ms. Bunch said, adding that the farmers’ market will make a concerted effort to continue operating in Beaufort.
The Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market started April 23, 2016, and has been a fixture in Beaufort since.
Ms. Bunch said too many people, customers and vendors alike, rely on the farmers’ market for it to just abruptly close.
“A lot of the vendors depend on the market,” Ms. Bunch said. “All of the vendors charge a sales tax, so it’s not like we’re leeching off of the county, (those sales tax funds) are going back to the county.”
As of now, Ms. Bunch has decided to hold the night market at another location, which will be announced at a later date.
“I’m going to direct all my energies at this point toward creating that holiday market in a different location in Beaufort with the help of (Mayor Rett Newton and Beaufort Manager John Day).”
Contact Dean-Paul Stephens at 252-726-7081, ext. 232; email Dean@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @DeanPEStephens.