By BRAD RICH
Tideland News Writer
Both parties in the long-running battle over a 289-acre mainland tract adjacent to Hammocks Beach State Park signed an agreement Wednesday to end a lawsuit and clear the way for eventual expansion of the park.
Attorneys for the state and Charles T. Francis, attorney for the Hurst and Turner families of Onslow County, signed the negotiated agreement.
David Pearson, president of the Friends of the Hammocks and Bear Island, the park’s support group, said the agreement should eventually result in the state paying the families $10.3 million for the land.
The first move under the agreement came Wednesday afternoon, when the attorneys filed a “joint motion to dismiss” a Supreme Court review in the lawsuit, and that motion was accepted, according to the Supreme Court’s website.
Pearson said the negotiated agreement itself should be filed in Onslow County Court early next week.
Under the agreement, he said, the state Superior Court, where the case has resided since 2010, will be asked to end the case and award the property to John H. Hurst and Harriet Hurst Turner. It would be up to them, Pearson said, to then obtain clear title to the land, which might have claims by others, including members of the Sharpe family. If Hurst and Turner can obtain clear title, they would then sell the land to the state for $10.3 million.
However, Pearson added, if clear title cannot be obtained, the agreement calls for the state to condemn the property and still award the money to Hurst and Turner.
Pearson said he hopes that either way, the state will have title to the land along Queens Creek by the end of the year.
Francis, the attorney for Hurst and Turner, did not return phone messages left at his office, nor did John Hurst return a message left at his residence.
Pearson, however, hailed the agreement as fair to the families and great for the state.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said Thursday. “It’s been a dream of mine and of Sam Bland (former HBSP superintendent) for 20 years, and we’ve been working on this for at least eight years.”
The ultimate goal, Pearson said, is to have a boating access site, similar in scope to the regional facility in Emerald Isle, camping, trails and much more on what some have called the most beautiful undeveloped property left along the state’s coastline. In addition, great swaths of the land should remain undisturbed, and some sections might be restored to its previous natural state.
“Keep in mind that the things I’ve mentioned are just a vision, and we have to go through a master planning process, of course, but once we get all this done, it will be great for Swansboro and for Onslow County,” Pearson said. “There are no doubt many things that can be done that no one has even thought of yet.”
Pearson also believes that existing camps on the land – used for a time by 4H- can be renovated and used.
Carol Tingley, acting director of the state Division of Parks and Recreation, said Thursday that the state is "very pleased that the settlement has been signed and look forward to eventually taking title" to the property.
"We still have to finishing raising the money, and there are some other things that must be done, but this was a major milestone," she added. "The money won't be awarded all at one time, but we fully expect to be able to put it all together."
l The park is currently made of four different areas: the 30-acre mainland, which is the hub and home of the visitors’ center and ferry dock; Bear Island, an 892-acre largely unspoiled barrier island with a ferry landing, an ocean beach with lifeguards and a restroom and concession facility; Huggins Island, a 225-acre maritime island, home to a historic Civil War battery, at the mouth of the White Oak River in Bogue Inlet; and 23-acre Jones Island, seven miles northeast of Bear Island at the mouth of White Oak.
The acquisition would represent about a 25 percent increase in the total size of the park. More importantly, though, it represents close to a 1,000 percent increase on the mainland; the 320-acre combined and very accessible site would put it roughly on a par with the 400-plus acres at Fort Macon State Park east of Atlantic Beach and at Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks. Each of those parks draws more than one million visitors per year; Hammocks Beach drew 135,701 in 2013, according to Superintendent Paul Donnelly. Pearson said state experts estimate that each park visitor spends an average of $25 per day, so the potential economic benefits to the area are tremendous.
And Pearson noted that the environmental benefits are also potentially far-reaching. If the land stayed in private hands, there eventually would be tremendous pressure for residential and/or commercial development, and at the very least there would likely be harvesting of the trees for timber. And the land serves not only as habitat, but also as a buffer area to reduce the pollutants that entire the White Oak River watershed.
The modern history of the land goes back to the early 1900s, when Dr. William Sharpe, a New Yorker, bought 4,600 acres along Queens Creek near Swansboro and hired John L. Hurst, son of a slave, to manage it. Sharpe planned to give the property to the Hurst family when he died, but the family eventually convinced Sharpe to donate it to a black teachers’ group.
The teachers association in the 1950s established the Hammocks Beach Corp. to manage the property in trust for its members. The property deed stated that if it couldn’t manage the property properly, the corporation could transfer the land to the N.C. Board of Education, but that if the board turned it down, it would go to the Hurst and Sharpe families.
The recent legal history began in 2006, when the Hurst heirs, Harriet Hurst Turner and John W. Hurst, sued the corporation, claiming it had failed to properly administer the trust, and sought the return of the 289 acres to the family.
In October 2010, a judge in Wake County Superior Court removed the corporation as trustee. But in early January 2011, the same court asked the state education board if it wanted the land. Although it had previously rejected the trusteeship twice, the board then said it would accept it, a move that could have cleared the way for the land to become part of the state park.
However, Harriet Hurst Turner and John H. Hurst appealed, and the state Court of Appeals placed a temporary stay on the lower court’s ruling, citing the board of education’s previous decisions not to accept the property.
Because the appeals court ruling was unanimous, there was no automatic right of review by the N.C. Supreme Court. However, state Attorney General Roy Cooper, on behalf of the education board, filed a petition for that review, and the Supreme Court accepted it before approving the motion to dismiss on Wednesday.
Since it would involve the acquisition of property for a state park, the settlement will still have to be approved by the N.C. Council of State, which includes Gov. Pat McCrory and his top department heads.
State Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, the Republican majority leader and a big supporter of the park, told the newspaper last month that he believes the general framework would win Council of State approval if it comes to that.
Brown said that he tried to get some money for the acquisition put into a line item in the state budget. “I always try,” he said. “But with money so tight this year, there just wasn’t any way. What I think we can do is use some money that will be available in the state conservation trust funds and combine it with some from other sources.”
Among the other sources, Brown said, are the Marine Corps, the N.C. Conservation Trust and local governments, including Onslow County. The Corps has a fund to buy property to prevent development from encroaching on its base at Camp LeJeune or in airspace it uses for training.
Bill Holman, North Carolina State Director for The Conservation Fund said his organization has been involved in discussions and is ready to help fund the purchase if the state does not have the full amount of money readily available. The trust would hold the property for addition to the park.
The case is Harriet Hurst Turner and John Henry Hurst v. The Hammocks Beach Corporation Inc., Nancy Sharpe Caird, Seth Dickman Sharpe, Swan Spear Sharpe, William August Sharpe, North Carolina State Board of Education and N.C. Attorney General Roy A. Cooper III.