NC high court weighs in on undeveloped coastal property

The (Jacksonville) Daily NewsNovember 16, 2013 

— The state’s high court has agreed to review an appellate court’s decision involving the ownership of nearly 300 acres of undeveloped coastal property adjacent to Hammocks Beach State Park.

The N.C. Supreme Court has allowed petitions for discretionary review filed by the N.C. Attorney General’s Office on behalf of the State Board of Education and by co-defendant The Hammocks Beach Corp., according to information filed on the North Carolina Courts website.

The parties filed the petitions in January after the N.C. Court of Appeals reversed the orders of the trial court and awarded the property to the Hurst family.

The ruling of the Court of Appeals was unanimous, and the defendants did not have an automatic right to seek discretionary review. Had the Supreme Court not granted the review, the court battle over ownership of the land was likely at an end.

Harriet Hurst Turner and John H. Hurst, the grandchildren of the late John L. and Gertrude Hurst, have challenged the state’s claim to the property in a legal battle that dates to 2006 and is one piece in a long dispute over the land.

The 289 acres at the center of the lawsuit sit along Queens Creek and are adjacent to Hammocks Beach State Park property.

The defendants have sought to keep the property for public use for recreational and educational purposes, which they say was the original intent of the late Dr. William Sharpe, a neurosurgeon from New York. Sharpe came to Onslow County in the early 1900s and acquired The Hammocks, Bear Island and all the marshlands between.

Sharpe made John Hurst, the son of a slave, and Hurst’s wife, Gertrude, caretakers of the hunting and fishing grounds.

While the history of the land is complex, a friendship between the Sharpes and the Hursts led to a shared goal of keeping the land in trust for use for recreation and education purposed by the N.C. Teachers Association and others. At the time, the association was for black teachers, and the property was to be used as a beach resort for its members.

The Hammocks Beach Corp. was formed in 1948 to manage the property and carry out that goal.

Limited funds and the remoteness of Bear Island made use of the island difficult, and Sharpe deeded it to the state in 1961 for a state park. Initially planned as a state park for minorities, it opened to everyone following the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Bear Island and part of the mainland now make up Hammocks Beach State Park.

The remaining 289 acres have been managed by Hammocks Beach Corp. in trust, and it has been used for 4-H and FFA camps.

In 2006, the Hursts filed a lawsuit claiming Hammocks Beach Corp. has not properly maintained the property and should be removed as trustee. According to information on the case, the deed states that if the trust cannot maintain the property, the State Board of Education can seek the title, and if the state did not want the land, it could go to the heirs.

The Hursts have challenged the state’s claim to the property. Attorneys for the family have argued that the Board of Education made judicial admissions that it has no interest in the case, including admissions made in a 2007 motion to be dismissed as a party to the legal action.

The December 2012 opinion filed by the N.C. Court of Appeals reversed the orders of the trial court, which had appointed the State Board of Education as successor trustee of the property. If the ruling stands, the property is awarded to the Hurst family.

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