Sunday, January 23, 2022

River Barons of the Cape Fear

There are campaigns at hand in New Hanover County that will shape the riverfront for generations. Everyone wants their say.

Point Peter, a peninsula across from downtown Wilmington, on a sunny day. (Port City Daily/Johanna F. Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — On a cloudy and windy Wednesday morning at Point Peter, three days after the new moon, winter storms moved north overhead and draped the riverfront peninsula in a light, cold rain.

Two environmentalists stood at the end of Point Harbor Road, right at the peak of high tide, as brackish water crept through the marsh grass. A few dozen yards south, a locked gate bore a private property sign and a Home Depot construction box with a name: KFJ Development Group. 

Robert Parr peered intently over the shoulder of Robin Wood, fixated on a cracked iPhone rigged to a control box in the younger man’s hands. Wood glided his thumbs over two joysticks, and the buzzing, four-pronged drone that hovered in front of them suddenly shot 100 meters into the sky. Parr started asking questions about the device’s capabilities and softly delivered marching orders. He wanted photos of it all. 

There are two parallel campaigns playing out in New Hanover County. On one side, Frank A. Pasquale, a developer from New Jersey, brings a vision of a transformed western riverfront — modernizing parts of the wild banks where the accumulation of marine junk followed the exodus of industry many decades ago. For months, Pasquale and his team, KFJ Development Group, have been championing their proposal, Battleship Point, that would bring three high-rises to Point Peter. Further south, a developer named Bobby Ginn is at work on a hotel proposal of his own. Unlike Battleship Point, Ginn’s project requires no heavy lifting in the form of public hearings and new laws.

Parr, a local coastal advocate, and Wood, of Coastal Plain Conservation Group, as environmentalists, desire no change on Point Peter. They’re part of the opposition, the other side of the conversation: multiple groups with various motivations — environmental, historical, cultural — aligned against the development of the western riverfront. The next stage in the showdown was scheduled for Monday, Jan. 10, at the meeting of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

The drone footage was packaged together with foreboding music and warnings about rising waters, encouraging people to make their opinions known to the board, but the public face-off never came. Before the hearing in the historic courthouse began, commissioner Rob Zapple motioned to postpone consideration of KFJ Development Group’s proposal. Both sides returned to their huddles.

1024 Adams St.

Below events are sourced from a 2011 decision authored by the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court, obtained from Rutgers School of Law archives.

In 1969, Frank F. Pasquale, a New Jersey businessman, purchased commercial property in Hoboken at 1024 Adams Street. There, he operated a manufacturing business, Spin-Tech, and rented out the top floor. 

Acting on the estate-planning advice of his attorney, Pasquale later created the Frank Pasquale Limited Partnership, according to court documents. He transferred ownership of 1024 Adams St. to the partnership.

Pasquale’s children, Frank, James and Carla, each were assigned a percentage of the partnership’s capital and profits through trusts. In the event something happened to him, Pasquale granted check-writing authority to Carla and James but not to Frank. Only the senior Pasquale had authority to mortgage the Adams Street property.

Pasquale mostly retired around 1996 or 1997 to aid his brother, who had fallen terminally ill. The younger Frank Pasquale was at that point overseeing daily operations at Spin-Tech. But Pasquale senior would still come around at least weekly; he signed leases with new tenants, had exclusive control of the bank accounts and collected rent checks at his home. 

Spin-Tech faltered over the next decade, and in 2005, Pasquale dissolved the company. His son, Frank, had started a business called “Fantasy Fountain” a few years prior and was operating out of Adams Street.

The younger Pasquale wanted to expand the business. He applied to a mortgage broker for a $350,000 loan in May 2005. In the loan application, according to court documents, he included forged papers that indicated he, not his father, owned the Adams Street property. There was a fabricated partnership agreement, living trust agreement, marital property settlement and more, according to court documents.

The mortgage broker approved the loan and the younger Pasquale signed a promissory note and mortgage agreement in the amount of $350,000, with the Adams Street property as collateral. He defaulted on the loan that August. Papers were served to Adams Street, where the younger Pasquale received them. The father stayed unaware of the impending foreclosure.

In September 2006, the 76-year-old father received a call from Mark Septembre, the “designated redeveloper” of the Adams Street property in Hoboken. Septembre asked why 1024 Adams St. was in the newspaper, listed by the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office as for sale. According to court documents, Pasquale immediately phoned his son, Frank.

The Thomas Rhodes Bridge, over the northwest part of Point Peter. (Courtesy Coastal Plain Conservation Group)

Bobby Ginn

In the summer of 1986, the financial affairs of Hilton Head were so bleak that suppliers declined to deliver golf balls to the pro shops, according to an archived New York Times article from the era. 

The South Carolina town was reeling from the wake left by Edward R. “Bobby” Ginn, a developer who had amassed key real estate on the island, then caused rumblings by selling it.

Ginn’s company, at one time the largest on Hilton Head, reportedly presented a bad check as prize money for the annual PGA Seniors golf tournament, and his employees received word on when they could cash paychecks by listening to the island’s only radio station. Drivers put bumper stickers on their cars inviting fellow travelers to “Honk If Bobby Owes You.” 

The ballooning of Hilton Head’s popularity, combined with the oil crisis of 1973 and exploding interest rates, had taken a heavy toll on the island’s original developers and wealth-holders, according to the New York Times. In 1985, Ginn, then a 36-year-old land developer from the South, bought a cluster of high-end property from the real estate wing of Marathon Petroleum Company. He also bought the assets of another dominant island landowner in financial decay, putting more than one-third of the island “under his flag.” 

Ginn later sold off many of his organization’s assets and mortgaged the rest, according to the Times article, then sold his company. One dozen local banks and Savings & Loan institutions put up $3 million to “tide over” Ginn’s old company until the tourism season of 1987 began. In December of 1986, a federal judge in Charleston “appointed a trustee to organize an orderly disposition of the disputed assets in the various bankruptcy proceedings,” according to the Times. “In dozens of lawsuits and countersuits, the owners of the island’s largest subdivisions, known locally as ‘plantations,’ accused one another of elaborate land swindles and bank fraud.”

NYT, 1987: A GUST OF BANKRUPTCY AND SCANDAL RATTLES ELEGANT HILTON HEAD ISLAND

But that was decades ago. Bobby Ginn went on to complete projects across the country during his career — many of them lauded for grand scope and vision — collecting legal complaints and enemies along the way. 

“The press can write what the press is going to write — sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad, and that’s the business we’re in,” Ginn told Port City Daily.  “There’s good times and there’s bad times. You can’t predict the weather.”

Ginn is currently doing consulting work for a proposed project south of Point Peter, now known only as “The Wilmington Hotel and Spa.” Years of preparation have produced a dense Brownfields Agreement that allows the building of a hotel on the riverfront tract. The project’s backers “took a long time working on it, and I think it’s going to bear fruit for us because of that,” Ginn said. He added there is a confidentiality agreement in place and he could not discuss the project further. 

“The projects stand for themselves,” Ginn said of his career. “To my knowledge all have gone forward except one, and it’s under contract.” 

Marine junk in the interior of Point Peter. (Courtesy Coastal Plain Conservation Group)

The environmentalists

Last year in New Hanover County, within the private sector, an appetite for something different on the river banks re-emerged. Across the water from downtown Wilmington, along the Cape Fear River, there is a coastline of privately owned land, much of it long neglected, stashed with industrial refuse, and memories of a past era when ship-building and manufacturing dominated the riverfront economy. 

On Wednesday morning, Parr and Wood huddled together on the outskirts of one of those parcels — an 8-acre tract on the Point Peter peninsula. An egret hunted nearby in the marsh, stalking prey in a pool of water that had spilled onto the roadway. 

Point Peter’s history is reflected in its zoning status, which designates much of the site and surrounding area for manufacturing, warehousing and other industrial uses. Nothing stands in the way of a property owner building a power plant or auto salvage yard at Point Peter, assuming all regulatory requirements are met. 

“The zoning districts that are applied to much of the area between the Thomas Rhodes Bridge and the Isabella Holmes Bridge are a heavy industrial designation,” the county planning director, Rebekah Roth, said. “That was applied back in the early 1970s, and kind of reflects what uses were in place at that time.”

KFJ Development Group sees the site differently. The three-man team wants to bring urbanization to the other side of the river, and envisions building three high-rises, known as Battleship Point, in a triangular formation on the peninsula.

“We don’t want anybody to go over there and put up a paper plant,” Kirk Pugh, the real estate agent of KFJ Development, said in an interview. “We don’t think that’s a proper use for our land or anybody else’s land up there.”

The ground underneath Parr and Wood’s feet is center stage in the county’s conversation about the future of the western riverfront. Environmentalists say the estuarial nursery grounds will not tolerate dense development; others say modern technology and sharp minds can find a resilient way; and the county is figuring out what it wants the western skyline to look like.

Wood continued to commandeer the drone, which became harder to spot overhead as more clouds rolled in and rain picked up. Parr followed its movements above the tree line, then turned to Wood, who was buried in the controls and monitoring video feed. 

“Did you take it all the way down to the point?” asked Parr, who holds degrees in medicine and oceanography, still wanting more footage. 

Just before making the trek to Point Peter, Parr and Wood attended a press conference hosted at the USS North Carolina Battleship Memorial, where Travis Gilbert, the director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, had arranged a fleet of stakeholders, who, from different angles, were all opposed to the development of Point Peter. They also spoke against the development of a second project further south, Wilmington Hotel and Spa, on Eagles Island, associated with Bobby Ginn. 

The speakers at the press conference — standing on the deck of the Battleship, with Point Peter in the background — showed an image of the peninsula as it looked two days earlier, turned into an island by the forces of the new moon and high tide, swallowed by the Cape Fear.

Wood tilted the screen in Parr’s direction. The cracked iPhone depicted the tip of Point Peter, facing south, from high overhead — the Cape Fear River running on the right side of the frame, and the Northeast Cape Fear River on the left. Parr spearheaded the opposition at the two planning board hearings held on KFJ Development Group’s proposal to date. He has made ominous predictions about the environmental consequences of building three towers right at the funnel point of the Cape Fear River watershed.

“This is good stuff,” Parr told Wood, watching drone footage in live time on the cracked iPhone. “What I want to do is say: ‘This whole area is wet.’” 

The southern tip of Point Peter. (Courtesy Coastal Plain Conservation Group)

All just a dream’

With a Monte Carlo-style casino, miles of beaches on Grand Bahama Island and golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, the $4.9 billion Ginn Sur Mer resort was slated to compete with Paradise Island’s Atlantis as the hottest vacation spot on the archipelago. 

Bobby Ginn’s 2,000-acre vision had the blessing of Bahamian authorities, but plans for the resort fell apart during the recession, said Joel Greene.

Greene, president of Condo Hotel Center — the company that has marketed the property — said there is now a contract in place to sell the entire lot to an unidentified developer. Closing is expected for the early months of 2022.

“He had other developments elsewhere, and all of them went crashing down when the recession hit,” Greene said of Ginn. “He lost a shitload of money at the Ginn Sur Mer project, which was going to be the largest casino, hotel, condo, resort at about 4,000 units. That was going to be the largest in the Bahamas, even eclipsing the size of Atlantis, but that was all just a dream.”

The Grand Bahama Development Company, responsible for master planning the tourism and residential lands of Grand Bahama, declined to comment on Ginn Sur Mer.

“Airport, homesites, golf,” Greene said. “Everything was there except for one thing, and that was the ability to get the deal done when the market changed.”

Ginn said this Bahamian resort proposal is the only endeavor of his that never progressed prior to his more recent sale of his company. 

“When I left it, everybody got what they were supposed to get, that was a condition of the sale of the company,” he said. “They got roads, water, sewer, the golf course — the things that we wanted them to have. It’s unfortunate, it’s just not operational. It will be. The skeleton is there, we spent a lot of money on it. It’s fixing to go into the right hands to finish the project up.” 

Point Harbor Road on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, facing north from Point Peter. (Courtesy Coastal Plain Conservation Group_

Frank A. Pasquale

Upon learning in September 2006 that the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office had listed his Adams Street property for a foreclosure sale, Frank F. Pasquale asked his son for information. Frank A. Pasquale told his father the debt at hand was from a personal loan, and that the impending sale of the property at foreclosure auction was a mistake he would take care of, according to court documents. 

The younger Pasquale provided his father with documents, dated October 2006, that appeared to ease the situation. There were papers indicating the original loan was paid off and the deal had been refinanced — and moreover that 1024 Adams St. had been removed from the sheriff’s auction list. Knowing that he was the only one with the ability to encumber the Adams Street property, the senior Pasquale, in receipt of the documents from his son, assumed all was well. 

According to New Jersey courts, the documents were forged. The Adams Street property was sold at auction on Nov. 2, 2006. 

The events set in motion years of lawsuits, involving the Pasquales, the mortgage broker and the company that bought the lot out of foreclosure. The suits were dealt with in civil court and never bred criminal charges. 

The purchaser of the Adams Street property sued the Frank Pasquale Limited Partnership and the senior Pasquale for money damages, then later added the son as a defendant with a count against him alleging fraud. The purchaser also sued the mortgage broker.

In an interview, Frank A. Pasquale said no laws were broken during these events. “It was a private family matter that was mishandled and blown out of proportion,” he said. “Ultimately, it was resolved, and everybody walked away as best they could.”

The trial judge, who called the situation “colossal fraud,” vacated the default judgement of foreclosure on the Adams Street property and awarded the senior Pasquale money damages for which the younger Pasquale was held liable. The plaintiff — the limited liability company that bought the lot at foreclosure — appealed the rulings, arguing that they should be entitled to relief, and that the trial judge erred in letting the senior Pasquale off the hook.

In 2011, the appellate division rejected those arguments and affirmed the rulings of the lower court, which had handed down a $729,675.53 judgement, plus attorneys fees, to the younger Pasquale. The Frank Pasquale Limited Partnership appears to have sold 1024 Adams St. within the past decade, according to Hudson County property records.

During trial court hearings, members of the family said the younger Pasquale was never authorized to act as an agent for the partnership, according to court documents. The senior Pasquale testified that, in the early 1990s, his son used his social security number to obtain a credit card — and then made a $7,500 expense that the father repaid. While employed by his father at Spin-Tech, according to testimony, the son had collected unemployment benefits from the state, which the father later repaid. 

One of the siblings, Carla, testified her brother, Frank, had a general “lack of ethics,” according to court documents, and that he frequently “spun the truth to his advantage.” That being said, Carla testified in July of 2008, the present fraud was on a far “grander scale than anything that he had said or done before.” 

The lawsuit serves as material for a study question in the twelfth edition of “Business Law, Alternate Edition.” In Chapter 5, under the subhead “ethical misconduct,” students are asked whether or not the younger Pasquale deserved the “lack of ethics” characterization, and how the court should have ruled. (The step-by-step solution tool says the court was correct in entering the judgement against the son, and in not penalizing the father, since he was unaware of the fraud, according to the textbook.)

Point Harbor Road, north of the Battleship Point property line. The Thomas Rhodes Bridge is on the left. (Courtesy Coastal Plain Conservation Group)

The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners

On the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 10, the adversity continued. Pugh, KFJ Development Group’s real estate agent, knew he was unlikely to have the chance to sway opinion at the board of commissioners meeting later that day. Enthusiasm from the planning board in November had turned more wary by December, and now the opposition seemed to be dominating the court of public opinion. Nearly every media outlet in Wilmington attended a press conference held by the Historic Wilmington Foundation’s Gilbert last Wednesday, and each reporter had likewise published a story on the roadblocks and high hurdles that would stand in the way of developing tidal grounds on the western riverbanks. 

The intent of the project, Pugh said, was to bring the riverfront out of an antiquated zoning classification that currently permits uses, namely heavy industry, that are not sympatico with public desire. Some criticisms strike him as unfair, like the talk about archeological artifacts potentially hidden at the site, submerged beneath the water and marsh. As part of the Gullah Geechee National Heritage Corridor, the cultural history of Point Peter extends back to colonial times, when enslaved peoples and their descendants created great wealth in southeastern North Carolina through inventive agricultural techniques. Centuries ago, the Cape Fear River banks were lined with lucrative rice fields.

“As part of our CAMA major permit to do the riverwalk and whatever marine facility we put in, a condition of the CAMA major permit is an archeological survey to determine whether there are any artifacts on site,” Pugh said, hoping to lay to rest fears that potential artifacts are at risk of destruction.

Now there was an Instagram contest to contend with. If users posted a picture with the hashtag #sunsetsoverskyscrapers and tagged @capefearriverwatch and @historicwilmingtonfoundation, they’d be entered to win a sunset mug, two tickets to @battleshipnc, and a $50 gift card to Seabird in downtown Wilmington. There was also a young local cooking up memes Pugh found to be distasteful. He emailed the board of commissioners, attaching two screenshots.

“It causes me to wonder how much support we could rally from the (mostly) silent majority if we were offering prizes……,” Pugh wrote. 

Point Harbor Road on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, facing north from Point Peter. (Courtesy Coastal Plain Conservation Group_

Frank A. Pasquale moved from New Jersey into Landfall a few years ago, he told Port City Daily in a previous interview. Jim Lea, a prominent family law attorney, became one of his tennis partners. Together, they worked to expose defects at River Place Condominiums in downtown Wilmington; then Lea asked Pasquale for help on a project in Brunswick County that involved checking out some riverfront parcels. That venture led to Pasquale’s discovery of Point Peter. He was enamored by the site. Along with Pugh, they make up KFJ Development Group: seekers of a future in which both banks of the Cape Fear are adorned with public river walks, and where a trio of towers, reportedly capable of producing $5 million in annual property tax revenue, could be joined together with the Battleship to form a one-of-a-kind skyline.

KFJ Development is not the first group this century to propose urbanization on the western banks of the Cape Fear, but their grandiose plans — mainly the degree to which they require changing county zoning law — has put New Hanover County in a position where it, too, is being asked to formulate a clear game plan for its across-the-river jurisdiction. 

Roth, the planning director, said the county’s comprehensive land use plan calls for an “urban mixed-use” designation at the site. It’s reflective of the county’s stance in the late nineties and early aughts. “[W]e wanted to see development on the western banks mirror what was on the eastern banks,” Roth said.

New Hanover County created a zoning district in 2007 designed to serve as the playbook for modern development on the western side of the river and encourage the private sector to overhaul industrial scrap yards like Point Peter. The 2007 district, however, included provisions that stifled interest, and the private sector only ever sent one piece of property, a bit further up river, into the pipeline.

KFJ Development Group has proposed an amendment to county zoning law that would establish an updated, riverfront-centered zoning district to guide future development on the west banks in the image of the Battleship Point proposal. 

For the project itself to receive approval from the county, the board of commissioners would need to first sign off on the creation of the new zoning district being proposed by KFJ, and then approve the rezoning of the Point Peter site into the created zoning district. 

KFJ Development Group has Kersting Architecture on its design team and commissioned Indigo River, a New York firm, to complete a feasibility study for Battleship Point. The project’s backers have acknowledged the environmental hurdles — from tidal nuisance flooding as seen last week, to expected sea level rise — and believe there is a route forward for responsible development of the banks. The low-lying areas at the site can be elevated, and there would be no net loss of habitat, according to the Indigo River feasibility memo. 

“It’s something that’s needed to happen in this community for the past 40 years, and we’re going to do everything to make sure it happens in a responsible and environmental way,” Lea, the attorney of the development team, previously told Port City Daily. “Our intent is to be responsible to everyone around us that has concerns about it.” (Lea currently represents Julia Olson-Boseman, the chairwoman of the board of commissioners, who is under investigation by the State Bar. In situations like these, according to the UNC School of Government, conflict of interest law does not apply, and Olson-Boseman has a duty to vote on the proposal.)

KFJ Development Group’s proposal met roadblocks late last year. The planning board — which takes a first look at land-use requests heading to the board of commissioners — first delayed consideration of the application for the new zoning district in November. The next month, the planning board voted to recommend the application be denied, a decision that informs, not prescribes, the board of commissioners’ eventual vote. 

On Monday, the commissioners halted the project even further by postponing its consideration indefinitely. Before Battleship Point is revisited, commissioners will brainstorm with county planners in search of establishing a unified position on how development of the west banks should be guided. The slow-down came after repeated warnings from environmentalists that the site was unsuitable for development.

“Because of some of the information that has been presented over the past couple months at public hearings, there is a question about, ‘Is this still the right direction,’” Roth said, “based on information presented regarding natural hazards, natural resources and historic resources, in addition to what’s best from a community character standpoint.”

Pugh said he was disappointed the county further delayed taking a position on KFJ’s proposal.

“I expressed my hope that there was a format whereby we could answer the concerns that had been expressed by some of the so-called experts,” Pugh said. “All of those concerns that have been raised by the opposition to the project, we don’t discount them at all, they’re all valid concerns.” 

In his riverfront venture, Bobby Ginn faces no hurdles as daunting as creating a new zoning district. The property he’s involved with, 14 acres roughly across the water from the end of Market Street on Eagles Island, is subject to a standard business zoning district that already allows its owner to build a hotel upon it. Developers need to procure the appropriate permits from various regulators, and construction could begin. 

“To take four years of my life to work on this thing, that’s not uncommon,” Ginn said. 

Ginn said further details about the Wilmington Hotel and Spa project will be released once the process is further along. 

“We took our time, and I would hope the other developers do the same thing, and build great projects out there,” Ginn said. “The one thing about projects, they hang around whether they’re successful or not.”


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