SWANSBORO — Both parties in the long-running battle over a 289-acre mainland tract adjacent to Hammocks Beach State
Park signed an agreement Wednesday to end a lawsuit and clear the way for eventual expansion of the park.
Attorneys for the state and Charles T. Francis, the attorney for the Hurst and Turner families of Onslow County, signed the negotiated agreement. David Pearson, president of the Friends of the Hammocks and Bear Island, the park’s support group, said the agreement should eventually result in the state paying the families $10.3 million for the land.
The first move under the agreement came Wednesday afternoon, when the attorneys filed a joint motion to dismiss a N.C. Supreme Court review of the lawsuit, and that motion was accepted, according to the Supreme Court’s web site.
Pearson said the negotiated agreement itself should be filed with the Onslow County Clerk of Court early next week.
In the agreement, he said, the state Superior Court, where the case has resided since 2010, will be asked to end the case and award the property to John H. Hurst and Harriet Hurst Turner. It would be up to them, Pearson said, to obtain clear title to the land, which might have claims by others. If Hurst and Turner can obtain the title, they would then sell the land to the state.
However, Pearson added, if clear title cannot be obtained, the agreement calls for the state to condemn the property and still award the money to Hurst and Turner.
Pearson said he hopes that either way, the state will have title to the land along Queens Creek by the end of the year.
He hailed the agreement as fair to the families and great for the state. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said yesterday. “It’s been a dream of mine and of Sam Bland (former Hammocks Beach park superintendent) for 20 years, and we’ve been working on this for at least eight years.”
Carol Tingley, acting director of the state Division of Parks and Recreation, said yesterday that the state is “very pleased that the settlement has been signed and we look forward to eventually taking title” to the property.
“We still have to finish raising the money, and there are some other things that must be done, but this was a major milestone,” she added. “The money won’t be awarded all at one time, but we fully expect to be able to put it all together.”
Francis, the attorney for Hurst and Turner, did not return phone messages left at his office, nor did John Hurst return a message left at his residence.
The ultimate goal, Pearson said, is to have a boating access site, similar in scope to the regional site in Emerald Isle, camping, trails and much more on what some have called the most beautiful undeveloped property left along the state’s
coastline. In addition, great swaths of the land should remain undisturbed, and some sections might be restored to its previous natural state.
“Keep in mind that the things I’ve mentioned are just a vision, and we have to go through a master planning process, of course, but once we get all this done, it will be great for Swansboro and for Onslow County,” Pearson said. “There is no doubt many things that can be done that no one has even thought of yet.”
Pearson also thinks that existing camps on the land – used for a time by 4H Clubs — can be renovated and used.
The park is currently made of four different areas: the 30-acre mainland, which is the hub and home of the visitors’ center and ferry dock; Bear Island, an 892-acre largely unspoiled barrier island with a ferry landing, an ocean beach with lifeguards and a restroom and concession facility; Huggins Island, a 225-acre maritime island, home to a historic Civil War battery, at the mouth of the White Oak River in Bogue Inlet; and most of 23-acre Jones Island, seven miles northeast of Bear Island at the mouth of White Oak.
The acquisition would increase in the total size of the park by about 25 percent. More importantly, though, it represents close to a 1,000 percent increase of the park area on the mainland. The 320 acres would put Hammocks Beach roughly on a par with the 400-plus acres at Fort Macon State Park east of Atlantic Beach and with Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head. Each of those parks draws more than a million visitors a year. The smaller Hammocks Beach drew 135,701 in 2013, according to Superintendent Paul Donnelly. Pearson said that state experts estimate that each park visitor spends an average of $25 a day, so the potential economic benefits to the area are tremendous.
And Pearson noted that the environmental benefits are also potentially far-reaching. If the land stayed in private hands, there eventually would be tremendous pressure for residential or commercial development, and at the very least there would likely
be harvesting of the trees for timber. And the land serves not only as habitat, but also as a buffer area to reduce the pollutants that entire the White Oak River watershed.
The modern history of the land goes back to the early 1900s, when Dr. William Sharpe, a New Yorker, bought 4,600 acres along Queens Creek near Swansboro 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 black teachers’ group.
The teachers association in the 1950s established the Hammocks Beach Corp. 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 N.C. Board of Education, but that if the board turned it down, it would go to the Hurst and Sharpe families.
The recent legal history began in 2006, when the Hurst heirs, Harriet Hurst Turner and John W. Hurst, sued the corporation, claiming it had failed to properly administer the trust, and sought the return of the 289 acres to the family.
A judge in Wake County Superior Court in October 2010 removed the corporation as trustee. But in early January 2011, the same court asked the state education board if it wanted the land. Although it had previously rejected the trusteeship twice, the board 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, Turner and Hurst appealed, and the state Court of Appeals placed a temporary stay on the lower court’s ruling, citing the board of education’s previous decisions not to accept the property.
Because the appeals court ruling was unanimous, there was no automatic right of review by the N.C. Supreme Court. However, state Attorney General Roy Cooper, on behalf of the education board, filed a petition for that review, and the Supreme Court accepted it before approving the motion to dismiss on Wednesday.
Since it would involve the acquisition of property for a state park, the settlement will still have to be approved by the N.C. Council of State, which includes Gov. Pat McCrory, the lieutenant governor and top department heads.
Bill Holman, N.C. state director for The Conservation Fund said his organization has been involved in discussions and is ready to
help fund the purchase if the state does not have the full amount of money readily available. The fund would hold the property for addition to the park.