Reprinted from the Tideland News
SWANSBORO — The state Supreme Court, in a ruling released last week, agreed to review a N.C. Court of Appeals decision in a long-running legal dispute that could add 289 acres to Hammocks Beach State Park.
By allowing the “petition for discretionary review” by the Hammocks Beach Corporation and the N.C. State Board of Education, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case it did not legally have to and kept alive an effort by the state to add the land to the park.
The state Court of Appeals, in a 3-0 ruling on Dec. 18, had essentially awarded the property to Harriet Hurst Turner and John Henry Hurst, plaintiffs in the dispute. A unanimous decision meant that the Supreme Court did not have to review the ruling.
By allowing the state’s petition, the case will continue. If the Supreme Court had denied the petition, efforts to obtain the land for the park could only have continued through other means, such as negotiation or condemnation.
The ruling has been posted on the Supreme Court’s web site under Dec. 7 petitions.
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper had filed the petition early this year on behalf of Hammocks Beach Corporation and the state Board of Education. The appeals court had ruled that the education board could not be appointed trustee of the 289 acres because it had turned down the opportunity previously.
The modern history of the land goes back to the early 1900s, when Dr. William Sharpe, a New Yorker, purchased 4,600 acres of land and hired John L. Hurst, son of a slave, to manage it. Sharpe planned to give the property to the Hurst family when he died, but the family eventually convinced Sharpe to donate it to a North Carolina black teachers’ association.
The association established the Hammocks Beach Corp. in the 1950s to manage the property in trust for its members. The property deed stated that if it couldn’t manage the property properly, the corporation could transfer the land to the state board of education. If the board turned it down, it would go to the Hurst and Sharpe families, according to the deed.
The legal wrangling began in the mid-1980s and has continued. In 2006, the Hurst heirs sued the corporation, claiming it had failed to properly administer the trust, and sought the return of the 289 acres to the family.
In October 2010, a Wake County Superior Court ruling removed the corporation as trustee. In early January 2011, the same court asked the state education board if it wanted the land. Although the board had previously rejected the trusteeship, it then said it would accept it, a move that could have cleared the way for the land to become part of the state park.
However, a ruling by the state Court of Appeals, on a petition filed by Harriet Hurst Turner and John H. Hurst, heirs of John L. Hurst, placed a temporary stay on that that ruling to give the appeals court time to review the matter.
Fox earlier had denied a motion by the Hursts to stay, pending an appeal, enforcement of a previous court order that could essentially allow the state to add the 289 mainland acres to Hammocks Beach State Park.
Charles Francis, the Raleigh-based attorney for the Hursts, contended in an interview last year that the state was indeed prohibited by law to become trustee because it declined twice before, in 1987 and 2007. “The state is legally bound by those declinations,” he has said. “And it is fundamentally unfair for the state to have sat on the sidelines … and then come back and try to take this property …”
Francis said at the time that the only legal reason the state could become successor to the trust is “to further the purposes of the trust,” which included managing the property “for recreational and educational purposes.”
The appeals court, in its December ruling, agreed and ordered the lower court to enter a judgment consistent with that opinion.
By allowing the petition filed by A.G. Cooper, the North Carolina Supreme Court agreed to review whether the appeals court’s decision on the board of education’s prior refusal of the trusteeship of the land was sufficient cause to reject the later effort to become trustee.
Efforts to obtain comments from the attorney general’s office and from Francis, were unsuccessful.