$10 million sale adds 290 acres to Onslow County coastal park

Bear Island, at Hammock's Beach State Park.
Bear Island, at Hammock's Beach State Park. NC Dept. Parks and Recreation

The state of North Carolina, a land-conservation group and the heirs to a piece of waterfront property once used as a retreat for black teachers and their families closed on a real estate deal Thursday that will add crucial acreage to the mainland section of Hammocks Beach State Park and clear the way for a new camp for disadvantaged youths.

The sale ends an 8-1/2-year-long legal battle that was as tangled as the maritime forest growing on the 290 acres along Queen’s Creek just outside Swansboro. It also assures that one of the last large undeveloped pieces of coastal waterfront land in the state will be preserved mostly in its natural state.

“I’m so excited, so overwhelmed, I’m trying to keep from screaming in your ear,” said Harriett Turner, who with her brother, John Hurst, sold the land to the state. “I get a chance to live the dream I’ve always wanted. It’s happening now.”

Turner’s dream was not to become a millionaire, though she and her brother, John Hurst, each will do so when they split the $10.1 million proceeds of the sale.

It has long been Turner’s ambition to bring back to life one of two camps on the property, and bring to it children who might not otherwise get the chance to spend their days in nature’s wonderland.

“Water and woods,” Turner says of the property, which is across the road from where she grew up. “What could be better?”

The state Division of Parks and Recreation will take public input and determine the best use of the land, which is adjacent to the 30-acre headquarters of Hammocks Beach State Park. The park includes three islands – Bear, Jones and Huggins – but on the mainland, the park has only a visitors center and a landing for the boats it uses to take visitors to and from Bear Island.

Carol Tingley, deputy director of the division, said the park would like to use the additional acreage for trails and possibly a campground.

“This will allow people to enjoy activities at the park even if they don’t go on a boat,” Tingley said.

The sale required two transactions. In one, the state paid Turner and Hurst $6.9 million for 200 acres of the tract, using a combination of funds from the state’s Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, money appropriated by the legislature, and from the sale of bonds designated for this purpose.

In a second sale, the Conservation Fund, which is based in Arlington, Va., and has a branch in North Carolina, paid $3.1 million for the remaining 90 acres, which it immediately will lease back to the state for the park’s use. The state will repay the Conservation Fund over the next three years.

The deal sets aside 27 acres of the land that includes the site of a forsaken 4-H camp and gives Turner three years to set up a youth camp there.

“She was just downright stubborn about it,” said Charles Francis, a Raleigh attorney who launched the legal case to return the land to the control of Turner and her brother so they could ultimately sell it. “For her, it was never about the money. It was about the camp.”

Establishing a youth retreat on the property would restore at least part of the use that was intended for it when Turner and Hurst’s grandparents were involved with the land.

That began in the 1930s, when New York neurosurgeon Dr. William Sharpe amassed the acreage as a personal hunting and fishing retreat. He hired Harriett and John’s grandfather, also named John Hurst, as a hunting guide. Their grandmother, Gertrude, quit her job as a schoolteacher to help manage and care for the land.

Later, Sharpe and his wife offered to give the land to the Hursts, but Gertrude asked that they instead deed it to a nonprofit that would run it as an education and recreational retreat for the teachers of black students in North Carolina’s then-segregated schools. The Hursts kept enough of the land to live on.

The Hammocks Beach Corp. was set up to act as a trustee for the rest, and raised money to build some amenities for guests. Across the state, the children of black teachers still remember going to the camp, which opened around 1950.

The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and gradually, black families were welcomed at other vacation spots, and there was less demand for the camp at Hammocks Beach. The corporation leased the land to others to operate camps; 4-H and the Future Farmers of America both used the land.

Eventually, they too stopped coming. Turner thinks the last 4-H camp was held in 2004. The FFA camp had been abandoned before that.

With their departure, the corporation was no longer meeting the terms of its deed, which said the land must be used as a camp, or be offered to the state. If the state didn’t want it, according to the deed, it would revert to Hurst heirs.

Turner and her brother sued to force the corporation to relinquish the land. In a circuitous turn of events that took the case twice to the N.C. Supreme Court, the property was offered to the State Board of Education, as specified by the deed, which twice turned it down. It later tried to reverse that decision.

Last year, the state and the heirs reached a settlement. All that remained was for them to agree on the terms of a sale.

Bill Holman, state director for the Conservation Fund, helped the parties agree on an appraisal and work out a deal that Holman says is a great compromise.

“This was a bargain sale,” Holman said. “I don’t think there is another piece of property like it in Onslow or Carteret County or on the central coast: a large property on a tidal creek that adjoins the intracoastal waterway. This is really the last opportunity the public has to have a large park that’s on the water.”

John Hurst, 59, who lives in Onslow County and runs a trash collection site for the county, said he plans to stay at his job and use his newfound wealth to help several churches and to support his sister’s plan for a camp.

Turner, who lives in Raleigh and is a paralegal for the Social Security Administration, will need the help. It’s expected to cost several million dollars just for the buildings to house first a day camp and eventually an overnight summer camp. She expects to invest most of her share of the proceeds from the sale into the effort.

Turner, who grew up on this land, says sharing its beauty with others is the way to get the most value out of it.

The sight of the sunlight glinting off the water in the marsh, she said, “Those are my jewels.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989