Gregory and Diane Nies, the retired couple whose lawsuit against the town of Emerald Isle has the potential to create a sea change in the public’s access to North Carolina’s 301 miles of shoreline, have sold their oceanfront property at the heart of the case.
But this week, in a letter informing N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin and the six other justices of the Sept. 30 sale, the Nieses’ attorney said even though the couple no longer owned the four-bedroom, wood-shingled home that register of deeds records show was sold for $1.3 million, they think the claims still exist.
“[T]he Nieses have not abandoned, sold, assigned, or otherwise waived their takings claims,” their attorney, David Breemer of Pacific League Foundation, said in an Oct. 5 letter. “The Nieses retain such claims and continue to press them.”
The lawsuit has drawn widespread interest within North Carolina and beyond state borders.
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For many years, beachgoers in North Carolina have enjoyed open access to sandy beaches from Sunset Beach in the south to Carova Beach in the northeast, from the water’s edge to the base of the dunes.
People can walk freely along the wet and dry sand. They can put down a towel, hoist a volleyball net and hunt for shells with much freedom to come and go.
The Nieses, who purchased their Emerald Isle home in 2001 for $1.050 million, have been at legal odds with the town they moved to from New Jersey for much of the past decade.
The town adopted an ordinance in 2010 that establishes an upper beach lane between the dunes and the ocean through which garbage trucks, public safety vehicles and other public service activities can go along without obstacles and structures in their path.
The Nieses contend that town officials engaged in a public taking of their property without compensating them. The town argues otherwise, and the state Court of Appeals supported those contentions in a unanimous three-judge ruling in 2015 that found that “public right of access to dry sand beaches in North Carolina is so firmly rooted in the custom and history of North Carolina that it has become a part of the public consciousness.”
On Dec. 14, the state’s highest court is set to hear arguments in a case that has brought together political opponents and organizations often at odds with each other to continue with the tradition of allowing the public to move freely between the wet sand and dry sand portions of North Carolina’s treasured coastline.
The seven justices might be the only ones who know why they chose to take up the case. They were not obligated to because of the unanimous Court of Appeals ruling. But a long list of organizations are lining up to offer their arguments in a case that puts a deep divide in those who argue that the state’s long-held tradition is the law of the land and the differing view from those who think the private property rights embedded in the state and U.S. constitutions trump the practice.
Breemer, the attorney with the California-based organization that has been a staunch advocate of property rights, said Friday that many were oversimplifying a complex case.
The deed that the Nieses had for the property stated that their lot line extended to the mean high water mark, which can shift over the years as rising tides and storms reshape the coastline. The Nieses have said previously – and Breemer confirmed their thoughts again Friday – that they were not trying to block people from walking up and down all of North Carolina’s shoreline. Their arguments were – and remain — about 76 feet of beach, the Nieses and their attorney have said.
Breemer and Emerald Isle officials, who declined to comment about the coming arguments and the sale of the property, acknowledge that any ruling for the Nieses could have a domino effect up and down the coastline.
But Breemer stopped short of saying a ruling for the retired couple would immediately change how beachgoers in North Carolina enjoy the popular vacation spots.
“Every property is different,” Breemer said.
Breemer said the Nieses sold their home in part because Gregory Nies has had health issues that make moving up and down stairs challenging. He said he did not know where they are now, nor did he ask them how much money they made on the sale of their property.
“We weren’t trying to hide anything,” Breemer said, explaining why he wrote the Oct. 5 letter to the justices.