CHARLOTTE — Matthews resident Neubert Purser, 87, has suffered two major blows in his life. The first came while serving his country on combat duty in the U.S. Army, on the front line of the Battle of the Bulge in Germany during World War II, when fragments from an exploding shell ripped a 4-by-8 inch gash in his body.
The second came March 5, 2005, only this time Purser didn’t see it coming. That’s the day he opened his morning newspaper to find a 30-day notice from the Town of Matthews, condemning his 71-acre farm, which he had purchased in 1954.
Purser had already told the town he didn’t want to sell, but was unaware that they had the right to seize his property using eminent domain.
“That blow was as bad as what I got overseas,” he said. “It knocked me plain off my feet. Up until that moment I didn’t know what eminent domain was, but I soon found out I had been sold out by my own country.”
The town says it needs open space to handle a surging population, but the condemnation has some residents worried that their property may be next. And while Purser’s land is targeted to become a regional park and recreation facility — satisfying a clear public use — critics of eminent domain wonder if the town could have used a less-confrontational approach.
Former Town of Matthews board member Bill Dixon, who served two terms from 2006-09, said the move to acquire Purser’s farm was an unethical situation that took many area residents by complete surprise.
“I was shocked at their decision,” he said. “The town council had already voted for condemnation of Mr. Purser’s land when I came onboard. It was not handled professionally. Most of it came through the back door and people didn’t know about it. Legally, they could do it, but ethically it was a bad decision. It broke Mr. Purser. It was terrible. It really brought him grief.”
Population growth and open space
Town of Matthews Communication Director Annette Keller said community leaders decided to secure the land after a long-range planning study revealed there wasn’t enough open space available for future parks and recreation development.
“Matthews is located adjacent to Charlotte, which has grown rapidly,” she said. “As a result, the Town of Matthews has grown rapidly and what we found is land was disappearing very rapidly.”
Keller said the town does not have a history of condemning people’s properties without just cause, but the unprecedented climb in population took the community by surprise. Matthews has grown from 10,000 residents in 1980 to approximately 30,000 today, and city officials needed additional open space for recreational facilities, including a regional park, sports fields, and a playground.
Keller said Purser’s land, surrounded by homes, was one of the last intact undeveloped parcels of land available near the town.
According to Town of Matthews attorney Charles Buckley, the leaders followed proper protocol and procedure to procure the land.
“The town council said his property was essential and they condemned it by resolution,” he said. “Agents came from the town to talk with him, to negotiate with him and acquire the land, but he wouldn’t sell.”
A lawsuit followed and eventually was settled in mediation, where Purser was awarded more than $4.25 million. The decorated veteran was also allowed to remain on his property tax-free and rent-free until his death.
‘More than his fair share’
“We offered him more than his fair share,” Keller said. “We’ve been more than fair with him. People think he got a good shake and what we did sounds reasonable to most people.”
Buckley said he can’t fathom why Purser put up a large red and white sign on the front fence of his former property stating “The Town of Matthews Took A World War II Veteran’s Farm.”
“I don’t understand (Purser’s) comments that we stole his property,” the attorney said. “It’s disconcerting to me. It was settled in 2006, so what is going on now?”
Keller said the land was appraised at $43,000 an acre and they ended up paying him $59,000 an acre.”
“I had worked in real estate and I told the board they were not paying Mr. Purser fair market value,” he said. “They used a county appraiser and they came up short by $10,000 to $15,000 per acre. I felt their offer was not enough.”
Purser remains upset because he felt forced into taking the town’s offer. He could no longer pay his lawyer’s fees, which amounted to $400,000 by the time the case was settled, and the eminent domain law ultimately didn’t leave him a legal leg to stand on.
Alternatives for acquiring land
Although he’s not familiar with the details of the Purser case, Daren Bakst, the legal and regulatory policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, said condemning land to build a park is generally not the right thing to do.
“A park is a true public use, but I don’t think it’s a compelling reason to take someone’s land,” he said. “I don’t think it was appropriate in this instance. They violated a person’s rights. They definitely should have sought other alternatives and exhausted their remedies. Then it would be appropriate.”
Dixon said this did not happen.
“There was a more ethical, straight-up way to handle this,” he said. “They could have secured a first-right of refusal for the land or placed a first option on it.”
The condemnation of Purser’s land has left many residents in Mecklenburg County uneasy about their own property rights.
Lee Meadows has lived in Matthews for 40 years and he said it was “unfair” and has left him feeling insecure about his own property.
Nearby Huntersville resident Pam Hester has worked tirelessly against the government taking some of her land through condemnation after Mecklenburg County decided to build a greenway path for all residents to use straight through her backyard.
“It’s unbelievable,” she said. “I’m sorry, it’s my backyard. I own it. I bought it for my children to play it. Our family doesn’t want to face the same fate as Mr. Purser in Matthews, who lost his farm so the government could have a new park. It’s just not right.”
Karen Welsh is a contributor to Carolina Journal.