The final footnote of decades-long legal battles over coastal land adjacent to Hammocks Beach State Park in Onslow County ended Tuesday when the state released a master plan expanding the park.
The N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation’s plan includes a 290-acre mainland addition the state acquired in 2015. The park, on the Intracoastal Waterway near Swansboro, consists of about 1,500 acres, including several islands. The plan calls for hiking trails, camping sites, rental cabins, picnic shelters, and fishing piers.
The most current legal fight, spanning nine years, ended in 2015 when Harriet Hurst Turner and her brother John H. Hurst won control of the property and sold it the state for $10.1 million.
While Hurst and Turner said news stories Carolina Journal published of the family’s struggles beginning in 2011 helped persuade others that they were entitled to the property, the 2012 election of Republican Pat McCrory as governor moved the process forward. Officials working under then-Attorney General Roy Cooper and former Gov. Beverly Perdue, both Democrats, tried to acquire the property from the Hurst heirs without paying for it.
“The state is trying to steal my clients’ land,” the heirs’ Raleigh attorney Charles Francis told CJ in January 2011.
McCrory appointed new leaders for state agencies, including the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the agency that managed the state park system. DENR leaders chose to work with the Hurst heirs instead of trying to take the land without compensating them. The General Assembly in 2015 transferred the Division of Parks and Recreation to the renamed Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
The legal fight began more than three decades years ago, when the Hammocks Beach Corp., a nonprofit trust set up to maintain the property, said restrictions set by the trust agreement made it impossible to generate enough revenue to keep the property from falling into disrepair.
The property had served as a beach for African-American teachers in the days of racial segregation. The dispute revolved around a 1950 deed involving Hurst and Turner’s grandparents, John L. and Gertrude Hurst. The Hursts received their parcel from the estate of Dr. William Sharpe, a wealthy New York surgeon who had major land holdings in the area he used for hunting. Dr. Sharpe hired the Hursts to manage the property and befriended them.
The deed and an agreement between Dr. Sharpe’s heirs, the Hursts, and the corporation provided that if it became impossible or impractical for HBC to manage the property as originally planned, the corporation could transfer it to the North Carolina State Board of Education to manage it as specified in the agreement. The deed also said if the SBOE turned down the property, it would go to the heirs of the Sharpe and Hurst families.
The Hurst heirs argued that they had a claim to the property because Hammocks Beach Corp. had not lived up to conditions specified in the deed.
Moreover, on two occasions, in 1987 and 2007, the education board rejected an opportunity to take over the property from HBC.
In the late 1980s, the Sharpe family renounced any interest in the property.
In 2006, the Hurst heirs sued HBC and in 2010, the heirs won a jury trial.
But Superior Court Judge Carl Fox overruled the jury, allowing the state to intervene and make a claim to the property. Officials from Cooper’s and Perdue’s offices tried to seize the land without compensating the Hurst heirs in 2011 and 2013.
In 2011, the N.C. Court of Appeals reversed Fox’s actions, though the matter was not settled until officials in the McCrory administration worked with the Hurst heirs to negotiate a settlement.