Thursday, June 13, 2024

Pender County judge loses appeal regarding ‘intolerable’ dirt bike operation

A dirt bike path at Copperhead Ranch, 532 Carl Meeks Road. (Courtesy Pender County)

PENDER COUNTY — Neighbors of a motocross track in Pender County may get some relief following a zoning ordinance violation upheld by the board of adjustment.

Carl Meeks LLC, owned by Pender County district court judge Chad Hogston, was determined to be operating a commercial business in a residential district without a special use permit. It’s in violation — his second in a year — of Pender County’s unified development ordinance. 

READ MORE: Pender County school board needs $4.7M more from commissioners, district staff say

Hogston’s lawyer, Samuel Potter, appealed the decision, unanimously denied at a quasi-judicial hearing Wednesday.

The property in question is 53 acres of land with a 5-acre dirt bike track, pond fishing, running trails and other amenities located at 532 Carl Meeks Road. 

In August 2022, the first violation was issued when county staff discovered a website that showed a schedule of activity times for clients who had registered to join the “Copperhead MX club” and costs associated with reservations for the facility. According to Hogston, the website was taken down and commercial business shuttered. 

During Wednesday’s hearing, Hogston said he was new to managing property and Carl Meeks LLC was “trying to steer clear of anything that has anything to do with commercial aspects of the property.” 

After the violation, Hogston opened the three-bedroom home on the property as an Airbnb. According to its listing — dubbed “Copperhead Ranch 3 bed/2ba home & Motocross Track” — the property holds nine guests and has a large barn for hosting large events per a separate fee. Anyone using the motocross track is required to sign a waiver. The home rents for $600 a night as of press.

Hogston said the Airbnb is open for anyone, yet all of the guests can take advantage of the various amenities, including the motocross track.

The short-term rental cannot be regulated by the county and a private dirt bike for personal use is well within a property owner’s rights. Yet, the board determined the second violation occurred when Carl Meeks LLC leased the Airbnb to a commercial dirt bike training company for five weeks earlier this year, which in turn charged outside riders to train.

According to development director Daniel Adams’ testimony on Wednesday, the investigation was initiated after neighbors complained about the operation at the January 17 board of commissioners meeting. 

County staff determined — and Potter confirmed — the property was being leased to DrivenMX, an Ohio-based company offering training and coaching programs for motocross riders. Staff issued the notice of violation on Jan. 19.

Hogston and his business partner, Tom Clifford, both provided testimony during the hearing, stating they did not know anyone was using the property besides DrivenMX. They described the dirt track as an ancillary amenity to the property, just like the ATVs and fishing access onsite. 

“I wasn’t aware of anything DrivenMX was doing outside using the property as any Airbnb property had used it,” Clifford said. 

However, a property owner can be cited for tenants’ ordinance violations, according to a North Carolina Court of Appeals decision in the case Patmore v. Town of Chapel Hill. 

The town cited a Chapel Hill landlord for parking violations of his tenants, which the owner appealed; yet, the court ruled that citing property owners was more effective than trying to track down transient tenants. The landlord is permitted to require compliance with the ordinance in lease agreements and those leases can have terms for enforcement, including eviction, indemnification and security deposits. 

The Airbnb located at 532 Carl Meeks Road. (Courtesy Pender County)

During Wednesday’s hearing, Potter asked if staff had any proof those using the track were not also staying on the property, to which Adams replied “no.” Potter also noted there was no evidence DrivenMX actually charged people while staying on the property. 

Still, the board of adjustment agreed the property was being used for DrivenMX’s winter training camp, charging $600 for a week, as noted on its website. 

“They are recruiting people, they are actually getting paid by somebody to run a business,” said board member Jeffery Snider.

During testimony from property owners, Scott Walker, who owns an equestrian business next door, said he’s seen Hogston advertise the property and race track.

“[The Airbnb] is a ridiculous loophole for doing something they say they aren’t doing,” Walker said. 

Hogston could appeal the board’s decision again, this time in Pender County superior court, where a final determination would be made. 

Because this is not the first time Hogston has been cited for operating a commercial business on the property, Pender County can take legal action upon any further violations. According to the Pender County UDO, a civil penalty of $100 or criminal penalty of $500 could be imposed.

Clifford told the board knowing the problems DrivenMX has caused, Carl Meeks LLC would not rent the property to them nor anyone else without vetting them first.

However, commercial business violations may only be the tip of the iceberg for Hogston, according to neighbor complaints lodged during the hearing. 

Seven residents testified on the negative effects of the motocross operations. These include large amounts of dust blowing onto their land, constant noise above a tolerable level, and frequent incidents of trespassing — none of which pertain to the appeal or could be addressed by the board of adjustment on Wednesday.

“You have a problem,” board of adjustment chairman Max Kipfer said. “From the testimony, there are a lot of things going on there that needs to be addressed.” 

A motocross track at 532 Carl Meeks Road. (Courtesy Pender County)

Julie Walker, wife of Scott, said they fear their horse-riding business will decline due to their proximity to the jarring sounds of racing. Julie stated she and multiple riders have been bucked from their horse due to encounters with dirt bikes, which frequently find themselves on the wrong side of the property line. 

Walker stated he has texted Hogston several times reporting a rider doing donuts in his driveway, someone plowing through his newly planted grass fields, among other incidents. Sometimes, Hogston tells him to call the cops, something Scott said he has never done on anyone. 

“I shouldn’t have to call the cops everytime someone drives down my driveway, which is a lot,” Walker said. 

Many other speakers noted they bought their rural property for peace and quiet. 

Resident Gary Helm stated he had to move his pregnant cows to a different location due to the constant noise, so much so it would be hard to sell his property, he said.

“It’s so loud it’s intolerable,” Helm said. 

The county’s noise ordinance — which was not in question of violation Wednesday — is only in place from 11 p.m. until a half-hour before sunrise. The rule prevents “the creation of any unreasonably loud, disturbing noise by any person in the county.” 

According to Hogston, guests are only permitted to ride between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., and if there’s any word of rule-breaking, he contacts the guests requesting them to stop.

Hogston said the hour restriction was voluntary, as was the construction of signs and “barriers” to prevent Airbnb guests from crossing property lines. He noted he also recently decided to cut his Airbnb rentals in half — twice a month — to reduce the frequency of the dirt bike noise. 

“We want to be good neighbors, so we have always had our doors open to speak with them about their concerns,” Hogston said. 

Some of those neighbors scoffed at that remark, a few noting they have never spoken with Hogston. 

“The problem is you run into an aggravated neighbor, it’s impossible to speak with them at that point, so we’re here,” Hogston said. 

At the end of the meeting, Hogston noted he had come up with a plan to help further assuage neighbor concerns, but was no longer willing to share it, claiming he didn’t think it would be well-received. 

After multiple board members told the audience they had no power to address some of their concerns, Pender County legal counsel Trey Thurman reminded them they do have the option of hiring legal representation to handle the problems.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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