Despite a ruling by the N.C. Court of Appeals saying the state has no interest in the property known as Hammocks Beach, lawyers working for Attorney General Roy Cooper are forcing John H. Hurst and his sister Harriet Hurst Turner to continue fighting for the 289-acre Onslow County waterfront property. The Hursts’ battle with the state has lasted more than six years.

John and Harriet’s grandparents, who died during the era of racial segregation, had an opportunity to take possession of the land. Instead, the Hursts insisted it be transferred to a trust that would use the property as a beach resort for African-American teachers. That proposal that became impossible when segregation ended. In 2010, a court ruled that the current owner, the Hammocks Beach Corp., must relinquish the property. The state wants to take the land without compensation to expand the adjacent Hammocks Beach State Park.

Carolina Journal first reported on the Hurst family case in January 2011. Documents obtained by CJ show that the Hurst family is willing to sell the land to the state after obtaining clear title to it.

The Hurst family thought the battle was over after a unanimous Dec. 18 decision by the Court of Appeals, which ruled against the State Board of Education and in favor of the family.

However, the fight continues because Cooper’s office is trying to secure the property for the benefit of another state agency, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. DENR would add the disputed property to the adjacent Hammocks Beach State Park, which it operates. The case is complex because DENR is not a party to the lawsuit.

The centerpiece of the Appeals Court ruling was that on at least two occasions during the current dispute, the State Board of Education has claimed no interest in owning the property, and the court said the board could not reverse its position and pursue the parcel.

Cooper’s office kept the case alive by filing a Petition For Discretionary Review Jan. 23 with the N.C. Supreme Court. In his Feb. 4 response to the state’s petition, the family’s attorney, Charles Francis, referred to the state’s efforts as “an outrageous, unlawful, and unjust land grab.” CJ was unable to determine how soon the Supreme Court will decide whether to review the case.

Former State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison told CJ that after the Appeals Court ruling, his executive committee met by phone the first week of January and decided not to pursue the matter.

Harrison said he changed his position after talking with DENR officials at the insistence of an attorney working for Cooper. The board of education apparently discussed Hammocks Beach in a closed session Jan. 9 or 10 and decided to continue supporting Cooper’s pursuit of the property for DENR. The board’s cooperation was necessary because it was the only state agency that was a party in the legal proceedings.

Senior Deputy Attorney General James Gulick and Senior Deputy Attorney General Thomas Ziko are the primary attorneys for the state. Gulick is assigned to the Environmental Division of the AG’s office and works on matters affecting DENR. Ziko heads the Special Litigation Division that includes an Education Section dealing with the State Board of Education. They convinced the state board to continue the fight with the understanding that if the board became the owner of the property, it would turn the land over to DENR to expand the adjacent Hammocks Beach State Park.

The AG’s office and DENR officials would not discuss the case with CJ, saying they don’t comment on ongoing litigation. Documents obtained from DENR about the case provided some insight into the state’s position, but the correspondence from Gulick was redacted. A DENR spokesman told CJ that Gulick redacted information that he believed constituted confidential communications between a public body and its attorney.

The Appeals Court’s December ruling stated that Superior Court Judge Carl Fox erred in 2010 when he appointed the state board as the trustee of the property. The Appeals Court instructed Fox to issue a new order conveying the property to the Hurst family.

The AG’s petition asked the Supreme Court to review the Appeals Court decision, saying “there is enormous public interest in preserving the unique, undeveloped, and large coastal property at issue in this case.” The petition also stated that the case involves “legal principles of major significance,” and “the decision of the Court of Appeals appears to be in conflict with decisions of [the Supreme] Court.”

The Hursts contend that a 1950 deed involving their grandparents’ inheritance provides for the property to go to them as the legal heirs since the state twice has spurned the land.

The property was part of a much larger tract that was set up in 1950 in a trust, known as Hammocks Beach Corp., for the purposes of developing and operating a beach resort for the exclusive use of African-American teachers and their families. The entire 10,000-acre property had been owned by Dr. William Sharpe, a New York surgeon who moved to Onslow County in 1917 and befriended John L. Hurst, a hunting guide and son of a slave, and Hurst’s wife Gertrude.

The property included Bear Island, which eventually became the major component of Hammocks Beach State Park.

After the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed government discrimination based on race, the resort became less attractive to African-Americans, who had other vacation options. Hammocks Beach Corp. was unable to raise enough money to maintain the facility and it fell into disrepair.

The agreement with Sharpe stated that if Hammocks Beach Corp. could not maintain the property or uphold the original terms of the trust, then the State Board of Education would have the opportunity to acquire the land. If the board refused, it would revert to the Hurst and Sharpe heirs.

In a 1987 consent agreement, the Sharpe family surrendered any future interest in the property and the State Board of Education renounced any interest in becoming a successor trustee because a government agency could not administer a segregated facility.

Moreover, in 2007, the AG’s office expressly stated that the state had no interest in owning or controlling the property. After Fox’s 2010 order, however, Cooper’s lawyers changed course and initiated action to claim the property for the State Board of Education.

Conflicts of Interest

Any real estate acquisition by the state needs the approval of the Council of State, consisting of Gov. Pat McCrory, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, and the eight other statewide elected executive officials. Even though the issue was discussed during the administration of Gov. Bev Perdue, the council took no action on the property.

Conflict of interest issues may arise with four council members. State Treasurer Janet Cowell and Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson serve on the State Board of Education. Forest also serves on the board, even though the relevant actions relating to the Hammocks Beach property took place before he assumed office.

Cooper and his attorneys already have staked out a position on the issue.

Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.