MOREHEAD CITY — The town of Morehead City last week filed civil action seeking a preliminary injunction against a downtown property owner who claims ownership of portions of municipal streets the town insists it has full authority and control over.
In the complaint filed Sept. 15 in Carteret County Superior Court, the town alleges the dispute threatens its ability to hold the 35th annual North Carolina Seafood Festival, which is scheduled for Friday-Sunday, Oct. 1-3, in downtown Morehead City. The action was taken against John Poag, who owns the building at the intersection of Evans and Shepard streets occupied by Southern Salt restaurant, formerly Capt. Bill’s, along with a parking lot directly north of the intersection.
According to the complaint, Mr. Poag claims “that he owns these portions of Evans Street and Shepard Street (surrounding his property) and can decide whether and to what extent they can be closed during the Seafood Festival.” The town, on the other hand, asserts it has full “authority and control” of the municipal street system, including the streets and sidewalks near Mr. Poag’s property, under North Carolina general statutes that date back more than a century.
The complaint goes on to state Mr. Poag “has engaged in inappropriate conduct, including but not limited to preventing festival vendors from using ‘his’ streets — conduct that, if allowed to continue, would seriously jeopardize Morehead City’s decades-long tenure as the host of the Seafood Festival.”
Mr. Poag claims otherwise. In emailed statements to the News-Times, he said he has cooperated with the town and N.C. Seafood Festival organizers in the past.
“There is a statute that gives the town the right to turn over their streets to non-profit organizations for different events. That statute is not an issue here,” he said. “In the past we have always supported those non-profit events. One such way we have supported these events is by providing our parking lot, free of charge for the past 35 years, to the North Carolina Seafood Festival so that they in turn could make money to support other local non-profit groups.”
However, the town alleges Mr. Poag has “increasingly engaged in conduct that threatens to undermine the Town’s ability to continue hosting the Seafood Festival,” for example by physically blocking portions of Evans Street with sandbags on the eve of the most recent event in 2019. The town claims that action required heavy machinery to remove the sandbags and resulted in a dispute with Seafood Festival organizers over who could use the area around Mr. Poag’s property.
In his statements to the News-Times, Mr. Poag stated the case is “strictly a legal issue between the Town of Morehead City and us concerning a street easement.”
“I have been unable to find a written easement for Evans Street located in the block between 7th Street and 8th Street,” he said. “I have asked the town for a copy of that easement, if one exists. They have not produced a written easement and have chosen to file a lawsuit instead.”
The preliminary injunction requested by Morehead City seeks immediate action from the courts in upholding the town’s authority over its municipal street system, allowing the town to host the upcoming festival without risk of conflict. The filing also seeks a declaratory judgement to settle the controversy over who owns the streets and affirm the town’s right to close public streets for public events.
Finally, the complaint requests the defendant pay attorney’s fees and other associated costs with the case.
The civil complaint was filed by attorneys with the Raleigh-based law firm Poyner Spruill on behalf of the town of Morehead City. City manager Ryan Eggleston told the News-Times the firm has specific expertise in this area of municipal law and they will be working “hand in hand” with city attorney Derek Taylor on the matter.
The city council voted during a special meeting held Sept. 8, directly following its monthly workshop session, to allow the attorneys proceed with the civil action.
“I believe we have a pretty good case to present to the superior court,” Mr. Taylor said in briefly introducing the matter Sept. 8.
However, there was not a quorum present for that special meeting, so the matter was included on the consent agenda for the city council’s regular meeting Sept. 14. A quorum requires at least four of the six council members, including the mayor, to be present, and only three of the six were there for the special meeting Sept. 8.
In a news release from Sept. 10 announcing the town’s intent to file a complaint, Mayor Jerry Jones said, “It is our obligation to protect the rights of our citizens’ public interest and quality of life, including control of our municipal streets.”
Last week, prior to the complaint being filed, Mr. Eggleston told the News-Times the town wanted to proceed as quickly as possible with the civil action because the Seafood Festival is coming up in just a few weeks.
“(We’re) really focused on the town making sure that when we need to, that we can exercise control of our streets for the better of the public,” he said. “Timing-wise with the Seafood Festival coming up…I think the timing is important to make sure that we’re doing what we need to protect those rights.”
As of Thursday morning, a preliminary injunction had not yet been ordered for the case, according to a court representative.
Reporter's note: This article was updated at 11:38 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, to include more information on the law firm representing the town of Morehead City and an update on the status of the injunction.
Contact Elise Clouser at email@example.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.