A nine-year legal battle over a 289-acre Onslow County waterfront property ended in late April when Harriet Hurst Turner and her brother John H. Hurst won control of the land and then immediately sold it to the state of North Carolina for $10.1 million.

While Hurst and Turner say that news stories Carolina Journal published of the family’s struggles beginning in 2011 helped persuade others that they were entitled to the property, a significant factor in their saga appears to be the election of Republican Pat McCrory as governor in 2012. Officials working under 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 leadership to state agencies, including the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the agency that manages the state park system. DENR leaders chose to work with the Hurst heirs instead of trying to take the land without compensating them.

The property once served as a beach for African-American teachers in the days of racial segregation. It will become part of Hammocks Beach State Park and the state will lease 27 acres to Turner for a new youth camp.

The legal dispute revolved around a 1950 deed involving Hurst and Turner’s grandparents, John L. and Gertrude Hurst. The Hurst heirs argued that they had a claim to the property because Hammocks Beach Corp., the nonprofit that owned the land, had not lived up to conditions specified in the deed. In 2006, the Hurst heirs sued HBC and in 2010, they won their lawsuit at a jury trial.

But Superior Court Judge Carl Fox overruled the jury, allowing the state to intervene and make a claim to the property. Even though the N.C. Court of Appeals reversed Fox’s actions, the matter was not settled until officials in the McCrory administration worked with the Hurst heirs to negotiate a settlement.

“We can’t speak to how things were done before we arrived. But once we took over the process, we were committed to doing what was right and to paying a fair value for the property,” said DENR spokesman Drew Elliott. “Three appraisals were conducted, and based on those values we negotiated in good faith in a fair and open process. As a result of that open process we were able to obtain the property under the agreement that includes a fair price and allows the former owners to retain a part of the property for their camp plans.”

As for the role of Cooper’s office in the Hammocks Beach dispute, spokeswoman Noelle Talley told CJ, “Attorneys with our office provide legal services as requested to carry out the policy decisions made by their clients. You may wish to speak with DENR more about this, as attorneys with our office were not involved in the final settlement.”


The history of the property revolved around a special relationship that began a century ago between John L. Hurst, the son of a slave and a hunting guide, and Dr. William Sharpe, a wealthy New York surgeon and avid duck hunter. Sharpe used Hurst as his hunting guide during his frequent visits to North Carolina. Sharpe was so fond of the area he decided to purchase his own hunting land.

In 1917, Sharpe purchased 4,600 acres of land near Swansboro, known as “The Hammocks,” and hired Hurst to manage the property. He also hired Hurst’s wife Gertrude, a local schoolteacher, as a housekeeper and cook. Sharpe and his wife Josephine became close friends with the Hurst family. Sharpe’s Onslow County estate, including marshland, eventually grew to approximately 10,000 acres.

Sharpe intended to give the property to the Hursts when he died, but instead they persuaded Sharpe to donate it to the North Carolina Teachers Association, which at the time was the employee association for black teachers. The teachers association established the Hammocks Beach Corp. to manage the property for the use and benefit of its members, effectively establishing a segregated resort complex. Sharpe deeded the property to the corporation in 1950.

The deed and an agreement between the Sharpes, 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 the property to the North Carolina State Board of Education to manage the property as specified in the agreement. The deed also state that if the Board of Education rejected the property, then it would go to the heirs of the Sharpe and Hurst families.

In 1961, HBC donated Bear Island to the state and it became the major portion of Hammocks Beach State Park. Passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended racial segregation, making it impossible for HBC to operate the remaining land as prescribed in the 1950 deed. HBC struggled to generate revenue, leasing portions of the property to the Future Farmers of America, the 4-H, and other groups, but was unable to maintain the property and its buildings.

The legal battle

In 1986, HBC filed a lawsuit against the Sharpe and Hurst heirs, the State Board of Education, and the attorney general. The corporation declared that the terms of the trust made it difficult to develop the property. The trust prohibited the mortgaging or sale of any property and also allowed the Sharpe and Hurst heirs almost unlimited access to the property.

In 1987, the parties signed a consent agreement allowing HBC more leeway to develop the land. The Sharpe family surrendered any future interest in the property and the Board of Education declared it had no interest in becoming a successor trustee. Then-Attorney General Lacy Thornburg and his chief deputy, Andrew Vanore, also signed the agreement. The Hurst heirs did not relinquish their right to acquire the land in the future if they chose.

In 2006, Hurst heirs John Henry Hurst and his sister Harriett Hurst Turner filed a lawsuit against HBC, claiming it had failed to properly administer the trust established to meet the wishes of Sharpe and their grandparents. The Hurst heirs sought a judgment returning the remaining 289 acres to them. Their attorney also included the Board of Education and Attorney General Roy Cooper as defendants to clarify that the board had no interest in the property. The next year, the Cooper’s office and the board filed a motion asking to be dismissed from the lawsuit, stating, “The Consent Judgment expunged any interest that the State Board of Education may have in the Trust.” Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour granted the motion.

In October 2010, the Hursts won their jury trial, but Fox immediately allowed the State Board of Education to stake a new claim to the property. He issued a judgment removing HBC as trustee, contingent on the formal appointment of the Board of Education as trustee to administer the trust. If the board refused the appointment, then the property would be distributed according to the terms of the 1950 deed.
Since the board had rejected the property in 1987 and 2007, the Hurst heirs believed they finally had gained control of the property.

They had not. The next month, after a closed-door presentation to the board by Special Deputy Attorney General Thomas Ziko, the board approved a resolution accepting appointment as trustee, and the legal battle continued. The plan was for the board to secure the land and turn it over to DENR to expand the Hammocks Beach Park.

The Hurst heirs appealed Fox’s decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals, and in 2012, the appeals court ruled for the heirs. In 2013, Cooper’s attorneys asked the N.C. Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, but before the case was heard, the new leadership at DENR and the Hurst heirs worked out the plan that was finalized in April.

“This has been my longest and perhaps most strenuous court battle in 26 years as a trial lawyer,” said attorney Francis in a press release. “This was a nearly nine-year litigation that took perseverance and staying power. At every turn there was a new obstacle to getting Harriet and John the compensation they deserved for their family’s land and legacy. … I am pleased we succeeded in defending their property rights and Harriet’s dream for a camp,” he said.

“The result is a vindication of the rights of property owners against the condemnation power of the state. But it also preserves a rare natural wonderland at the coast for future generations, while honoring the hopes and aspirations of a generation past,” Francis said.

“Even though it was an ugly battle I decided to not retain animosity toward anyone,” Turner told CJ. There were times we were extremely frustrated with the changing conditions thrown at us by HBC and the state. It was costly in time and money, and took a toll on my health. I am grateful to God, my family, my friends, and our legal team,” she said.

“To me it was a great learning experience. I had to learn to be patient. I learned a lot about people,” John Hurst told CJ. “We won a nine-day jury trial and then Judge Fox said he was going to ignore the jury and give the state another chance to take over the property. I put it in God’s hands from the beginning,” he said. “Your first article was outstanding. If someone did not know the whole story, they would have taken the state’s side,” he said.

Turner and Hurst credit Bill Holman, state director of The Conservation Fund, for providing significant help in reaching an agreement with the state. Holman served as DENR secretary in 1999-2000. The total price was $10.1 million, with the state paying $6.9 million and the Conservation Fund covering the balance. The state will repay the Conservation Fund’s contribution over the next few years.

Both Turner and Hurst also credit State Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, with helping bring the parties together. “I was involved at the tail end of this. It was important to come up with a fair price. I don’t think anyone from Onslow County thought the state should get it for free,” Brown told CJ. “The Hursts have been very cordial in working on this,” he said.

Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.