News: CJ Exclusives

Edwards’ ‘Slummy’ Neighbor Sells Out

Monty Johnson sells land for $1.6 million and moves to S.C.

Win or lose in the presidential campaign of 2008, John Edwards will have one thing to cheer about: That pesky Chapel Hill neighbor that his wife complained about last spring will be gone.

Last April, Elizabeth Edwards made national news when she criticized the family’s across-the-road neighbor, Monty Johnson, for pulling a gun on trespassers and for not maintaining his “slummy” property.

“I don’t want my kids anywhere near some guy who when he doesn’t like somebody, the first thing he does is pull a gun out,” she said at the time. “It scares the business out of me.”

Johnson, however, has sold his 42 acres, which contain occupied mobile homes and deteriorating buildings located directly across the road from the Edwards 100-acre estate just outside Chapel Hill. Johnson and his family have moved to South Carolina.

On May 9, Chapel Hill businessman Cowan Griffin, doing business as KCAJ, LLC, gave Johnson a written offer to purchase the property for $1.6 million, the exact asking price that Johnson had placed on the property through a “for-sale-by-owner” real estate listing service.

Johnson said Griffin did not try to negotiate on the sales price and did not seek to inspect the property prior to purchase. Johnson said he accepted Griffin’s offer to pay $1.1 million at closing and pay the remaining $500,000 due on or before May 31, 2008. The sale was completed on May 29 and Johnson and his family were required to leave by June 1. The total tax value of the parcels involved is $570,623, according to Orange County tax records.

Johnson, a 56-year old retired landscaper, said the land had been in his family since before the Great Depression. Johnson lived on the property and earned extra income from leasing the 12 mobile homes and an auto repair shop located on the property.

He received national media attention in April 2007 after Elizabeth Edwards referred to him as a “rabid, rabid Republican,” and called his property “slummy.” Johnson said he was already planning a move when Edwards made her comments. He said real estate taxes were getting too high in Orange County and he anticipated problems living across the street from the Edwardses.

Johnson previously had the property listed with a traditional real estate broker and was asking $1.2 million. He said Friday in an interview at his home near Florence, S.C., that he would have taken $1 million for it.

The only offer he received, he said, was for a 600-foot strip of the land along the road across from the Edwards’ driveway. That offer came through another real estate agent who would not identify the prospective buyer.

Johnson said he was not interested in selling only a portion of the land. He said he was immediately suspicious that the unnamed buyer might be Edwards, but said he has found no evidence to confirm that.

Griffin, who ultimately bought the property, told Johnson he was paying for the land with family money, but records show that Griffin signed two separate deeds of trust, or mortgages, totaling $1.1 million to Richard I. Levin of Chapel Hill, a retired UNC business professor. Public records indicate that Griffin has none of his own funds involved in the purchase.

On Friday, Levin acknowledged making loans of more than $1 million to Griffin for the purchase of the Johnson property. He said he has no idea what Griffin plans to do with the property, and has no information that he is buying the land for someone else.

He said his loan was secured by the value of the land, but would not say whether he’d had the land appraised. “I am a lender, that is what I do to make money,” he said.

Johnson said the gross income from the mobile home and auto repair building rentals was only about $4,200 per month, with at least one-third of that going to expenses. He said he could not understand how Griffin expects to make enough to pay off the $1.6 million investment in the property if the land is used for its current purpose.

Multiple phone messages seeking comment from Griffin were not returned. Attempts to contact the Edwards campaign about Johnson’s move were also unsuccessful.

Johnson’s new home is an older brick ranch house on 75 acres just outside Lynchburg, S.C. His family had been visiting nearby Lake Marion for years, he said, and bought a small lake house there three years ago.

Johnson became a minor national celebrity for a short time. News organizations and the Orange County Republican Party were drawn to his “Go Rudy Giuliani 2008” sign posted across from the Edwards’ driveway. He gave numerous interviews, but interest in his relationship with his neighbors eventually died down. He accepted Griffin’s offer and quietly moved away.

“I felt sad about letting people down by moving, but I did what was best for my family because the Edwardses would continue to be a problem,” he said.

Though he has already vacated the property, Johnson’s pro-Giuliani sign will stay. He extracted an agreement from Griffin that the sign can stay as long as Giuliani stays in the presidential race.

On the presidential race Johnson said he believes that Giuliani is the best choice but thinks former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee may do well. On the Democrat side, he said U.S. Sen. Joe Biden impressed him.

Edwards and his family moved into their custom 28,200-square-foot home in 2006. The house, which includes a recreational building attached to the main living quarters, also is probably the largest in the county according to local tax officials. The tax value of the home is $5. 7 million, but that is based on a 2005 revaluation year.

The rambling structure sits in the middle of a 102-acre estate on Old Greensboro Road west of Chapel Hill. The heavily wooded site and winding driveway ensure that the home is not visible from the road. “No Trespassing” signs discourage passersby from venturing past the gate.

The main house is 10,400 square feet and has two garages. The recreation building, a red, barn-like building containing 15,600 square feet, is connected to the house by a closed-in and roofed structure of varying widths and elevations that adds another 2,200 square feet.

The recreation building contains a basketball court, a squash court, two stages, a bedroom, kitchen, bathrooms, swimming pool, a four-story tower, and a 1700 square-foot room designated “John’s Lounge.”

Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.