DOBSON — The Surry County Board of Elections unanimously dismissed a challenge to a Surry County Republican Party official’s right to vote in the county.
“I get American Hunter magazine in Virginia,” said Surry Republican Party Chair Mark D. Jones. “If that’s a sin, I’m guilty.”
Mount Airy resident Diana Gwyn filed a voter challenge in April alleging Jones does not live in the Stewarts Creek 2 precinct in which he is registered to vote, in Surry County or in North Carolina.
On Monday, the board of elections heard arguments from Gwyn and Jones, who was represented by an attorney from Raleigh. The hearing, which lasted nearly eight hours, began at 10 a.m. at the Surry County Government Center in Dobson.
Jones registered to vote in Surry County in December of 2015, and his address on file with the board of elections is 389 Beechnut Lane, an address associated with the Beechnut Family Campground.
Both sides of the issue agreed Jones owns a camper which he placed at a campsite at the park. However, Gwyn claimed Jones, who was elected as the county GOP’s chair in March, doesn’t actually reside at the camper.
Gwyn testified she had been to the campground on multiple occasions and had not seen Jones. She had also spoken to another tenant at the campground who she stated said, “He lives in Virginia.”
Gwyn also said she took a trip to Sugar Grove, Virginia. There, Jones’ parents own property. She also found Jones’ wife at a home owned by the party chair’s parents in Sugar Grove.
“We will stipulate that Mr. Jones’ wife and kids spend a lot of time in Virginia,” said Brian LiVecchi, Jones’ counsel, toward the end of the proceedings.
As the hearing went on, Gwyn’s case against Jones unraveled.
The woman Gwyn had claimed stated Jones lives in Virginia testified that she had never made such a statement.
Gwyn also cited county zoning law in her argument, which states that a recreational vehicle cannot be used as a permanent residence.
However, Surry County Planning Director Kim Bates said the zoning law would be applicable in the case of permitting for a property. He noted, as an example, a person could not remove the axles from a camper and have it permitted as a home. He has no knowledge of the definition of residence as it pertains to voter eligibility.
Gwyn also hired a private investigator, a retired Winston-Salem police officer, to conduct an investigation into the matter.
Jerry Pittman said he took at least two trips to the campground as well. He also went to the Sugar Grove address, where he witnessed a vehicle registered to Jones and a person mowing grass while wearing a straw hat, who he believed to be Jones.
“I don’t even own a straw hat,” countered Jones when he took the stand later.
That stated, Jones and LiVecchi admitted that Jones does help his father with many chores. His family spends, at times, three to four nights a week in Virginia, and Jones spends nearly every weekend there.
“I think we could stipulate Mr. Jones has, in fact, mowed some grass there before,” said LiVecchi.
Pittman did note that Jones’ camper was not plugged into the electrical system when he first visited. The second time he visited the site, it was plugged in, but the meter showed no usage in the two days between visits.
Jones later stated the camper uses almost no electricity unless the air conditioning is running. Additionally, he stows the cord when he is not using it to avoid damage to the cord, which is somewhat expensive.
Jones testified he once owned a home in Craven County, where he was based as a supervisory biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Commission.
Jones asked the commission for permission to move in order to be closer to his parents in 2010, according to his supervisor, who testified at the hearing. He was granted permission contingent on the sale of his home.
Jones said that home and 26 acres of land finally sold in 2015. He still owns 70 acres of land in Craven County. The family made the move to Surry County and rented a home in State Road, which they determined to be insufficient, in December 2015 and January 2016. Then they made the move to the campground, a move for which Jones also had an explanation.
“If I sold my property in Craven County I stand to pay $50,000 in capital-gains taxes,” said Jones.
Jones said he acquired the property at a good price, and he stands to make money on it. Under North Carolina law he could avoid capital-gains taxes if he sells the 70 acres in Craven County and purchases a similar property in Surry County within 45 days of the sale.
Jones intends to do just that, he said. The camper is temporary, and once the Craven property is sold, he and his family will move to a more permanent residence in Surry County.
The party chair provided bank statements which indicate he banks in Surry County and a veterinarian bill for services rendered in the county. Both of his vehicles and his camper are registered in Surry County, and he pays property taxes on that property in Surry County.
Todd Tolbert, who owns Beechnut Family Campground, also testified he sees Jones frequently at the campground. Jones is also the only person, excluding members of Tolbert’s family, who has a key to the front gate at the campground.
“Mark calls Surry County home,” said LiVecchi in his closing arguments.
He noted Jones wanted to get involved in politics in his new home, and there is a deep divide between the “grassroots” and “establishment” members of the party.
“This is a dogged, determined effort to disparage his character,” added LiVecchi.
Don Wright, who the board retained as its own counsel, described the conditions of residency as laid out in a 1994 N.C. Supreme Court case. The first condition is a voter must have abandoned his or her previous address. The second is the voter must acquire a new domicile by actually residing somewhere. The final condition is a person must have an intent to make that new political subdivision his or her home.
Board members agreed that Jones abandoned his former home when he sold it, established a residence — both at the State Road address and the campground — in Surry County and intends to remain in Surry County.
“I feel Mr. Jones worked hard in securing his ties to Surry County,” said board member Dwayne Carter, a democrat, before noting Jones had provided the same Surry County address to a number of entities.
Carter, board chair Angela Crews and board member Karen Tate voted to dismiss Gwyn’s challenge.
LiVecchi indicated there may be “consequences” for what he believes was a frivolous action attacking Jones.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.