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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Due to conflict of interest, Topsail attorney will not represent town in The Point rezoning

Topsail Beach town attorney Steve Coggins will not represent the town in a south end conditional rezoning. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

TOPSAIL BEACH — Topsail Beach commissioners will be seeking outside counsel for future decisions and questions on a south end conditional rezoning.

In a special-called meeting Tuesday, Topsail Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to deny a waiver for town attorney Steve Coggins to represent it in The Point case, due to a conflict of interest. The issue was first brought up publicly at the April 12 board of commissioners meeting.

READ MORE: Topsail planning board has 65 days to mull Pendo CEO’s rezoning request for The Point

However, Coggins told Port City Daily, he brought the matter to the town’s attention last fall “out of an abundance of caution.”

In 2005, prior to his role as town attorney, Coggins and his firm, Rountree Losee LLP, represented the McLeod family, who owns the 150 acres dubbed The Point, in a matter against the town. The family opposed amendments to the land use plan being proposed at the time and retained Coggins for his legal advice.

The McLeod family is under contract with Todd Olson, Raleigh tech founder of Pendo, who is seeking to purchase the land. Olson wants to rezone 30 acres for a gated family compound, which has been met with abundant pushback from town residents.

Most have expressed an interest in conserving the property, which the town and conervationists attempted to do in prior years but failed. Olson said he plans to work with the NC Coastal Land Trust to preserve 119 acres in perpetuity.

Due to the highly sensitive and controversial nature of the rezoning, residents and commissioners both expressed it was in the best interest for the town to use a different attorney relating to the matter.

During the April 12 board meeting, Michele Rivest and Nancy Patton spoke during public comment in opposition to the waiver.

Patton said she and a handful of other residents consulted with an attorney, and  “strongly” opposed Coggins’ request for a waiver.

She cited North Carolina State Bar’s rules of professional responsibility, which prohibits town attorneys from proceeding on conflict of interest without waivers.

“The town should seek an attorney who has no history representing any parties or beneficiaries,” Patton said. 

Rivest said she thought Coggins should recuse himself.

“There is a time and cost in securing another attorney, but I believe strongly — this is a very contentious matter as you all know — the town needs an attorney with no previous ties to the McLeod family and the Olsons who can objectively and fairly represent the town.”

Though the land is owned by the McLeods, Olson is the one under contract to purchase it, contingent on the conditional rezoning being approved. Also, Coggins said he’s not sure the same family members he represented nearly 20 years ago are still in charge of the LLC.

“I certainly get the impression the property is presently owned by some entity by which my clients are connected in some way,” Coggins told PCD. “I’ve never even seen the contract between the McLeods and Mr. Olson.”

A Topsail town attorney since 2009, Coggins submitted a waiver of conflict to the board April 12 requesting to renounce any potential issues representing the town through the rezoning application. 

“There are rules of professional responsibility, and I would not have represented the town unless there was a waiver,” Coggins told PCD.

In the waiver, he explained why he could still represent the town, stating the McLeod family is no longer paying him for his services and there is a cost and time savings for him to continue in his legal role. 

Also, Olson agreed to allow Coggins to retain his position associated with the rezoning. The reason the waiver was not presented to the town earlier was Coggins was waiting on Olson’s signature; both were required to proceed.

“There was no point in the town making a decision unless Mr. Olson also signed the waiver,” Coggins said and confirmed he has never represented Olson before.

Commissioners went into closed session to discuss their options Tuesday morning, but state statute requires any formal decisions to be made in a public forum.

All board members agreed Coggins is a “competent” attorney with a “great reputation,” but that it would be in the best interest of the town, and for Coggins, to seek outside counsel.

“I support him wholeheartedly,” commissioner Frank Braxton said at the meeting. “However, in a situation like this, we want to make sure we protect Steve. Someone could bring action against him even though it’s frivolous. He incurs a cost and that may be shared with us to defend him.”

Mayor Steven Smith and commissioners Tim Zizack and Joe Bell agreed.

“We don’t need to put something up there to put a red flag, give someone the opportunity to challenge that and create problems,” Bell said.

Commissioner Morton Blanchard said he was more concerned for the town’s safety.

Coggins can be present during discussions on the conditional rezoning but will not be offering any legal advice or be involved with any terms of the zoning process. The town has not yet hired another attorney, and the planning board has until May 31 to make a decision on the conditional rezoning.


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