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State Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield says the Johnston County house she bought three years ago provides legislative session lodging and has not replaced her childhood home in Wilson County as her primary residence.
Political rivals are raising questions about the four-bedroom, 3,021 square-foot home at 295 Montford Drive in the Chadbourne subdivision south of Garner as Farmer-Butterfield campaigns for a ninth term representing House District 24. The home is in District 28, where Republican state Rep. Larry Strickland of Pine Level is seeking a second term.
“I stay there during session,” Farmer-Butterfield said. “When I’m not in session, I’m at my parents’ house. I’ve made no secret about it. Many of the legislators have places to stay when they’re in session. I’m not a novelty at all.”
Farmer-Butterfield said her home near the Johnston-Wake county line is 20 minutes from the General Assembly and that her youngest daughter lives at the Montford Drive home year-round.
“My daughter picked out that house, and it is her dream house,” she said.
The Democratic lawmaker faces a challenge from Ken Fontenot, an unaffiliated conservative who’s endorsed by the Wilson County Republican Party and the North Carolina GOP.
Fontenot, a teacher at Forest Hills Middle School and a pastor at Bethel Baptist Church, called the need for Wilson’s state representative to have a second home “comical,” estimating the commute from his house to the North Carolina Legislative Building at 45 minutes.
“I can see that some members from the western part of the state would need to stay in Raleigh,” Fontenot said. “I won’t have a second home in Raleigh. I love Wilson, I like living here, and I plan on coming home every night. I have a wife and three kids, and we are embedded in the community.”
NEW HOME, FAMILY HOMESTEAD
Candidate filing and voter registration records list Farmer-Butterfield’s address as 7218 Bridgersville Road. The home is in eastern Wilson County’s Wilbanks community and has a Macclesfield postal address.
Built in 1954, the three-bedroom, 1,779 square-foot home has an assessed value of $84,370, according to Wilson County tax records. Its registered owner is After Eight, LLC, a corporation whose registered agent lives in Fort Washington, Maryland.
Farmer-Butterfield said she and her siblings formed the limited-liability company to hold and manage her parents’ real estate assets.
“There are eight kids in the family,” she said, explaining the name After Eight. “My parents had us do it many years ago when they were looking into how to do their family affairs when they age. I help pay taxes for all the properties.”
The Montford Drive home was built in 2004, and Johnston County tax records assess its value at $391,850.
Real estate website Zillow estimates the Chadbourne house’s market value at $426,043 and the Bridgersville Road home’s value at $97,548.
Farmer-Butterfield bought the Montford Drive house for $375,000, closing on the sale on Sept. 18, 2015. Chadbourne is an upscale subdivision in Johnston County’s unincorporated Cleveland community, which is booming with development as Raleigh’s suburbs grow.
“I had hoped it would be a good investment,” she said.
MORTGAGE OCCUPANCY REQUIREMENT
Farmer-Butterfield obtained a $337,500 mortgage from State Employees’ Credit Union to purchase the home. Raleigh attorney Duane R. Hall — a three-term Democratic lawmaker who served as Farmer-Butterfield’s seatmate in the House — represented her in the real estate transaction.
The mortgage document, a Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac uniform instrument, includes a one-year residency requirement. A political operative provided The Wilson Times with a copy of the mortgage, which is on file at the Johnston County register of deeds office and is public record under state law.
“Borrower shall occupy, establish and use the property as borrower’s principal residence within 60 days after the execution of this security instrument and shall continue to occupy the property as borrower’s principal residence for at least one year after the date of occupancy, unless lender otherwise agrees in writing, which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld, or unless extenuating circumstances exist which are beyond borrower’s control,” the mortgage instrument states.
The document also states that a borrower would be in default if he or she “gave materially false, misleading or inaccurate information or statements to lender (or failed to provide lender with material information) in connection with the loan. Material representations include, but are not limited to, representations concerning borrower’s occupancy of the property as borrower’s principal residence.”
Farmer-Butterfield said she stayed at the Montford Drive home Mondays through Thursdays when the General Assembly was in session and stayed at the Bridgersville Road home in Wilson County each Friday through Sunday.
CANDIDATE RESIDENCY LAW
Candidates for public office are required to be eligible voters in the districts they seek to represent, and N.C. General Statute 163A-842 defines residence for registration and voting purposes as the place where “that person’s habitation is fixed, and to which, whenever that person is absent, that person has the intention of returning.”
The 1979 N.C. Supreme Court case Lloyd v. Babb established a three-prong test to determine that a voter had changed his or her residence. Voters must abandon their prior home, have a present intention to make the new location their home and have no present intention to leave.
Bob Joyce, the Charles Edwin Hinsdale professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina, explored residency challenges at length in a 2010 post on the UNC School of Government blog.
“It’s not a simple formula, such as where you sleep or where you get your mail,” Joyce wrote. “Instead, it’s a little more fluid, boiling down to a few rules, simple to state but sometimes hard to apply.”
Joyce said he has not studied the intricacies of federal mortgage law and could not offer an opinion on whether the term “principal residence” as used in Farmer-Butterfield’s security instrument would have any bearing on determining residency for elective office.
Any registered voter can challenge the status of a person’s voter registration by filing a notice with the county board of elections.
For his part, Fontenot said he hadn’t considered pressing the issue.
“I’m not worried about a residency challenge from myself,” he said, “because I don’t need that to win.”
Attorney Mark Bibbs faced a residency challenge when he changed his voter registration to the address of his former downtown Wilson law office and ran against Farmer-Butterfield in the 2014 Democratic primary for House District 24. Farmer-Butterfield defeated Bibbs with more than 77 percent of the vote.
Fontenot said the Johnston County home answers a question he’s heard from Wilson County voters — when she’s not campaigning for re-election, where is Jean Farmer-Butterfield?
“You don’t see her at Walmart, Harris Teeter,” he said. “You only see her at public events when it’s campaign season. Other than that, she’s a ghost.”
Wilson County GOP Chairwoman Christy Fyle echoed that concern.
“It is upsetting to know that she is living in another county and should be representing Wilson County residents,” Fyle said. “I’ve never seen her at anything until this year.”
While the redrawn House District 24 taking effect in 2018 is a single-county district encompassing all of Wilson County, Farmer-Butterfield noted that her current district includes northwestern Pitt County and a portion of the city of Greenville, where she’s also expected to maintain a presence.
“For the last six years, to avoid the rumor that I was not visible enough in Pitt County because of the competition I had, I had to work extra hard in Pitt County,” she said.
“If I only have one county, I will probably be too visible to them, quite frankly. They’re probably going to get tired of me when I get re-elected because I’m going to be anywhere and everywhere.”
Greenville City Councilwoman Kandie Smith ran against Farmer-Butterfield in the 2016 Democratic primary. Farmer-Butterfield bested her with 62 percent of the vote.
“I’m still actively involved in my community,” Farmer-Butterfield said. “I live in my house where I grew up.”
Noting that many people work in Raleigh and live in Wilson, Fontenot said General Assembly service should not require a second home to shave some time off the drive.
“I have a problem with anybody who wants to represent a county and not live in it,” he said. “If that’s the case, then that’s just a flat-out shame. People know where I live. People know they can find me. I’m very willing and able to be a person who is actually visible and accessible and not live in a high tower somewhere.”
Fontenot and his wife, Francesca, are the owners of record for the 1821 Lynn Drive W. home in Wilson where he’s registered as a candidate. They purchased the property in March 2014, and it has a tax value of $148,599.
Farmer-Butterfield said having a place to stay that’s close to the legislative building during sessions is a benefit to the people she represents.
“It’s really to the constituents’ advantage for me to have this situation for the last few years because instead of spending all that time driving back and forth, I’m able to spend that time working for them,” she said.
With caucuses, committee meetings and other obligations beyond the time spent on the House floor, legislative service involves commitments that a newcomer may not realize, she said.
“I can tell you that I spend more than 40 hours some weeks working on behalf of the legislature, and never less than 40,” Farmer-Butterfield explained.
She added that she supports converting the General Assembly into a full-time legislature and raising lawmaker pay so members would not have to remain employed during their terms in office.
“This is 2018. We are still treating the North Carolina legislature as if it were a part-time legislature back in the 1800s,” she said.
Farmer-Butterfield believes attacks over her second home will backfire. Quoting former first lady Michelle Obama, she said, “When they go low, I go high.”
“People are tired of the negativity,” she said. “They want to see us put the people’s business first and not tear each other down just because we’re trying to win the election.”