Without a request from either side, without agreeing with either one and essentially without explanation, the N.C. Supreme Court has decided to toss out the lawsuit aimed at blocking N.C. State University endowment officials from selling the giant Hofmann Forest.
The court added the new twist to the roller-coaster saga of the land deal when it quietly issued a one-line ruling in the case Friday. The order said simply that it was dismissing the case “ex mero motu” or essentially of its own accord.
The deal to sell the 79,000-acre forest, which is near Jacksonville, fell through early this month when the buyers couldn’t get financing for their $131 million offer.
NCSU officials said then that they planned to find another buyer and the plaintiffs – a small group that includes environmentalists and foresters – said they wanted to continue pursuing the case.
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The court had already heard arguments and was thought to be close to a decision. That means the plaintiffs had fought for more than a year and spent the money – about $50,000 – it should have taken to get a final verdict, said plaintiff Ron Sutherland, a wildlife scientist.
Now if the university finds another buyer, it will have to spend more in a second quest for a court order to force NCSU to perform a full review of the environmental impact of selling Hofmann.
“At least they didn’t rule against us, so I guess it could have been worse,” he said.
In response to a query, Brad Bohlander, a spokesman for NCSU, issued an email statement Monday on the court’s decision.
“N.C. State University, the Endowment Fund for N.C. State and the Natural Resources Foundation appreciate the court’s time on this issue and respect the court’s decision,” he wrote.
The opponents of the sale, Sutherland said, assume that the court dropped the case because even though the university says it’s still selling, an actual sale is now theoretical.
If NCSU finds another buyer, at least the legal groundwork for another lawsuit is done, so it probably would be less expensive, he said.
Sutherland said that he instead hopes the university will work with the opponents to develop a plan to ensure that the forest is permanently protected. The opponents are now trying to persuade the university to consider that.
A Wake Superior Court judge had dismissed their lawsuit last year, but they had appealed.
Other dramatic turns in the saga include: the revelation that the buyers had circulated a prospectus for potential investors that touted the high quality of the forest’s soil for farm crops and its suitability for development; a decision by the state Supreme Court just before Election Day to snatch the case from the state Court of Appeals before that lower court had even reached a decision; and an announcement in September that the buyers had not only renegotiated their initial $150 million offer lower but also brought in as a partner a timber investment company that is well-respected by environmentalists.