Bald Head Island, transportation provider split on lawsuit’s timeline

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  • The Village of Bald Head Island and owners of the transportation system that serves the island are taking contrasting approaches to resolving a legal dispute at the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
  • The transportation system's lawyers filed court documents this week seeking to expedite the case. Lawyers for the village seek an extension that would delay the case by 30 days.
  • The village challenges the North Carolina Utilities Commission's August 2023 decision approving sale of the Bald Head Island ferry, tram, barge, and parking to Raleigh-based SharpVue Capital.

The Village of Bald Head Island and the provider of transportation services to and from the mainland are taking contrasting approaches to the timeline for resolving a legal dispute. Competing court filings Thursday at the North Carolina Court of Appeals exposed the divide.

The village is appealing the North Carolina Utilities Commission’s unanimous 2023 approval of the sale of the Bald Head Island ferry, tram, parking, and barge to Raleigh-based SharpVue Capital.

The transportation system’s owners filed a motion this week to “expedite” the case. They also seek a “peremptory setting,” which would move the case to the front of the line for scheduling. In contrast, the village filed paperwork on the same day seeking a 30-day extension to file its opening brief.

“The pendency of the appeal is preventing the transaction from closing, causing harm to the public,” wrote lawyers representing Bald Head Island Transportation, Bald Head Island Ferry Transportation, and Bald Head Island Limited.

Former Bald Head Island owner George Mitchell died in 2013. The current dispute stems from disagreements about liquidating assets from Mitchell’s estate.

A 2017 Ferry Transportation Authority Act from the General Assembly originally had support from the village, along with Southport and Brunswick County, according to the transportation system owners’ court filing. The village objected in 2020 to a planned $56.1 million bond to purchase the transportation system. In March 2021, the village announced plans to pursue the transportation system on its own.

The Mitchell estate announced plans to pursue other options in September 2021. It reached an agreement with SharpVue in May 2022. The Utilities Commission approved the sale in August 2023.

“Yet, the transaction cannot move forward until the Village’s appeal from that decision is resolved,” the court filing argued. “In the interim, the public and our State are suffering harm.”

“The ferry system is the principal way that visitors travel to and from the island. As with any transportation system with growing demand, additional capital investment is needed. But since the Bald Head Island companies are currently owned by the Mitchell Estate, which is trying to wind down its affairs, needed investments in operations and assets are not possible,” the court document continued.

“The ongoing ‘uncertainty’ regarding the eventual ownership of the ferry is having a detrimental impact on this transportation system and logistical operations of ‘critical importance’ to one of the premier resort/vacation destinations in the State of North Carolina,” according to the transportation system’s owners. “The longer this uncertainty continues, the greater this impact will be.”

“The pendency of the appeal itself is creating uncertainty not only for Bald Head Island Limited, LLC employees, but also for passengers relying upon the transportation system to get to and from the island — homeowners, visitors, employees working on the island, and contractors building and repairing homes and providing services to the Island. Until the appeal is decided, that uncertainty continues,” the filing added.

The village’s opening brief in the case is due March 11. Village lawyers explained in a competing motion why they seek to delay the deadline to April 9.

“[T]his case arises from a three-day hearing before the North Carolina Utilities Commission, culminating in a 35-page order (including attached conditions) from which the Village has asserted nine separate bases for reversal,” village lawyers argued. “There are nine transcripts in the record, and the record in this case … is nearly 2,500 pages long. Further, the issues in the case are complex, as this case concerns the intersection of a complex financial transaction with Utilities Commission regulatory requirements.”

These court documents arrived more than three months after the Appeals Court heard oral arguments in a separate dispute involving the Bald Head Island transportation system. In the other case, transportation system owners challenge the Utilities Commission’s decision to begin regulating a barge and mainland parking lot. The Bald Head Island ferry and the island’s tram service already face state regulation.

There is no deadline for a decision in either case.