John Hurst

Harriett Hurst Turner, left, and John Hurst, center, are pictured with Charles Francis, the attorney who represented them in an 8-1/2-year case that ended in a land sale that earned them $10.1 million. (Photo contributed)

By BRAD RICH

Tideland News Writer

Thursday afternoon, attorneys for the state of North Carolina, a major conservation organization and for John L. Hurst of Onslow County and his sister, Harriet Hurst Turner of Raleigh, closed on a deal that added 290 acres of Hammocks Beach State Park and earned Hurst and Turner $10.1 million.

Friday morning, Hurst, 59, planned to go to work at the Onslow County trash collection site he supervises, and he doesn’t plan to quit. He’s a happy man, but not just because of the money. He and his sister, he said Thursday afternoon, are also happy that after 8-1/2 years of legal wrangling, the end result was an agreement and a sale that fairly compensates them and gives Harriet the chance to establish a 27-acre camp for children, but also ensures that “the public will always be able to enjoy this land and there won’t be a lot condos there.

“To be honest, it’s been going on for so long, I don’t think it’s really set in yet,” he added. “But I think it’s a good thing.”

So does everyone else involved, from the Hursts’ attorney, Charles Francis of Raleigh, to David Pearson, president of Friends of the Hammocks and Bear Island, the park’s volunteer support group. Francis called the legal proceedings the “longest and perhaps most strenuous court battle” in his 26 years as a trial lawyer.

“This was a nearly nine-year litigation that took perseverance and staying power,” said Francis, who has a picture of himself visiting a Hammocks Beach Corp. camp at age 2 with his father. “At every turn there was a new obstacle to getting Harriet and John the compensation they deserved for their family’s land and legacy. I am pleased we succeeded in defending their property rights and Harriett’s dream for a camp.

“But,” Francis added, “The family and I are also very pleased that the park will be able to expand and that the public will be able to enjoy this property. Harriet and John love Onslow County and the Hammocks and are happy that they are now able to share it with others.

“The result is a vindication of the rights of property owners against the condemnation power of the state. But it also preserves a rare, natural wonderland at the coast for future generations, while honoring the hopes and aspirations of a generation past.”

“Halleluiah and amen,” added Pearson, who helped start the long, arduous process more than 20 years ago with Sam Bland, who was then superintendent of the park and is now a conservation specialist and educator with the N.C. Coastal Federation, an environmental group based in western Carteret County.

“It’s been a long ordeal, but it turned out to be a win-win. Everyone benefits. There were times that I had doubts that this would become part of the park, but throughout the whole process, I also always felt there was a good chance it could turn out this way. You don’t give up. And it certainly wasn’t all me. A lot of people were involved, and a lot had to happen.”

This all goes back to the 1930s, when Dr. William Sharpe, a New York neurosurgeon, bought up huge amounts of land – more than 4,600 acres – as a personal hunting and fishing retreat. He hired Harriett and John’s grandfather, also named John Hurst, as a hunting guide. Their grandmother, Gertrude, quit her job as a schoolteacher to help manage the land.

Later, Sharpe and his wife decided to give the land to the Hursts, but Gertrude asked that they instead deed it to a nonprofit that would run it as an education and recreational retreat for the teachers of black students in North Carolina’s segregated schools. The Hursts kept enough of the land to live on.

They set up the Hammocks Beach Corp. as a trustee for the rest, and raised money to build some amenities for guests. The camp opened around 1950, and Hammocks Beach became known as the beach for black people on the North Carolina coast. But after the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, everything began to change; slowly, black folks began to be allowed at other beaches. The HBC leased the land to others, including 4-H and Future Farmers of America, to operate camps.

Eventually, they too faded. The last 4-H camp was held in 2004, and the FFA camp was abandoned before that. Both have fallen into disrepair and have been victimized by vandals.

With that, the corporation itself went into a steady demise, unable to pay its taxes and unable to meet the terms of its deed, which specified that it had to be used to as a camp or offered to the state. If the state didn’t want it, the property was supposed to revert to the Hurst heirs.

And that’s when the legal battle began.

In 2006, Turner and Hurst sued the corporation, claiming it had failed to properly administer the trust, and sought the return of the 289 acres – the rest had long been sold off, and much of it developed – to the family.

Turner and Hurst prevailed on all issues at a 2010 jury trial, and a judge in Wake County Superior Court removed the corporation as trustee. But the court asked the state board of education if it wanted the land, and in 2011, the state reversed its early position declining the land, according to Francis, “and tried to assert itself as trustee and take the land from the Hurst heirs without compensation.”

However, Turner and Hurst appealed, and the state Court of Appeals placed a 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. That set in motion serious attempts to reach a deal. Eventually, that deal was struck, and the Supreme Court approved a motion, agreed upon by both parties, on June 11, 2014.

But that – in retrospect – might not have been the hardest part. The state had to come up with the money, and it was not the best of financial times. No one gave up, least of all Pearson, who wanted to fulfill his and Bland’s dream, and Francis, who was determined his clients would be justly compensated.

Enter state Sen. Harry Brown, the Onslow County Republican who holds the powerful position of majority leader. According to Francis and Pearson, Brown worked hard behind the scenes and helped get money from the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and from state bonds.

“He just made it happen,” Francis said. “About one-third of this money came from the trust fund, and another third, roughly, came from the two-thirds bonds that Sen. Brown got into the state budget. I can’t say enough about Sen. Brown.”

On April 7, the N.C. Council of State, the governor’s “cabinet,” unanimously approved funds for the purchase during a meeting in Raleigh, and set the closing date for April 26.

The COS vote allocated $6.96 million for the purchase of 199.37 acres, and The Conservation Fund, through its state chapter office, committed $3.1 million more to buy the remaining 90 or so acres, according to state director Bill Holman.

The fund is expected to work with the state parks system over the next couple of years to enable the state to buy those 90 acres, according to Holman. In the meantime, the 90 acres are to be conserved.

The state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority had approved a $1.06 million allocation for the purchase during its Dec. 5 meeting, bringing the PRTF’s contribution to about $3.9, and the total amount available to the aforementioned $6.9 million.

Of that, the other $3 million, in bond money, was included in the state’s budget, signed into law in August 2014 by Gov. Pat McCrory.

Brown said he was pleased.

“This will make Hammocks Beach State Park one of the premier, if not the premier, parks in the state,” he said. “It will create more water access for visitors and boaters while preserving our environment. It will also create an opportunity to establish an education environment for students across the state.”

Francis also had high praise for Holman.

“Without Bill Holman and The Conservation Fund, this couldn’t have happened either,” he said. “And it also couldn’t have happened without partners in Onslow County (government). The HBC hadn’t been able to pay its taxes on the property since 2006. That amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The county worked with us to avoid foreclosure in order to bring this to this good end.”

Hammocks Beach State Park is currently made up 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 about half of 23-acre Jones Island, seven miles northeast of Bear Island at the mouth of White Oak River.

The acquisition represents about a 25 percent increase in the total size of the park and close to a 1,000 percent increase in the mainland area.

Holman was as excited as Pearson.

“I think this will transform Hammocks Beach State Park and provide the public a lot more year-round use and new activities,” he said. “There is really no other piece of land like this one in the area.”

Holman, who previously was secretary of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and executive director of the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, said he had been going to HBSP since he was a teen-ager, and at one time, in his younger years, loved camping on Bear Island, the remote, totally undeveloped barrier island component of the park.

The acquisition of the mainland property, some of it along Queens Creek, means that eventually there should be camping opportunities in HBSP for a folks who are not up to the rigors of camping on the island.

Bland also has a deep emotional attachment to the park – he’s probably hiked and boated every inch of it and knows its flora and fauna as well or better than anyone alive – and had been dreaming of this acquisition since at least 1988, when he was superintendent of park.

“I started putting it on our list for land acquisition that year, I think,” he said. “Sometimes when we had some money, the owners weren’t willing to sell, and sometimes when owners might have been willing, we didn’t have any money.”

The idea all along was to make the park more of a year-round destination, Bland said.

“Especially way back then, when all we had was three acres and Bear Island, people would drive up in the off-season, when the ferry to Bear Island wasn’t running, and there really wasn’t anything for them to do,” he said. “It’s better now, with 30 acres and the visitors’ center, but this will make a tremendous difference. This is a great piece of land, with its own unique ecological qualities.

“I really appreciate David (Pearson) never letting this dream die, and continuing to pursue it all these years.”

The next step, Pearson said, is to update of HBSP’s master plan, which was last done in 1991. He said he doesn’t know if the state Department of Parks and Recreation will do that in-house or contract it out, but he and Holman stressed the public will be intimately involved. The update also will deal with Jones and Huggins islands, which were added to the park after 1991.

John Hurst, who plans to helps several churches with his money, and also will aid his sister with the camp plan, said Thursday he hadn’t given much thought to being involved in the planning for the park, but said it was something he’d consider, because he remains emotionally attached to the land and wants to see as much of it as possible remain a pristine place, where visitors can use trails and see and learn about the plant and animal life that abounds.

Pearson agreed. He knows there will be pressure from some to develop things like an RV Park, but he hopes that most in the community will want to keep “The Hammocks” as natural as possible. There should be “primitive” camping areas, he said, and at least one large campground suitable for major events by Boy and Girl scouts or other groups.

Above all, Pearson said, he wants the people of Swansboro and environs to have a big say in what happens

“This was all for the community,” he said. “It’s going to mean a lot.”

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