Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Wrightsville’s new police chief meets man behind jet-ski lawsuit, appeal filed same day

The Police Chief called it a pleasant and coincidental meeting; the owner of the jet-ski company, who has been at odds with the town for years, felt differently.

The owner of a jet-ski rental company has been at odds with the Town of Wrightsville Beach for years. (Port City Daily/File)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — Chris Mangum has spent many days in a folding chair underneath the Heidi Trask Bridge, taking phone calls and renting jet skis on the intracoastal waterway.

For years, Mangum has run a jet ski rental business on the state-owned land next to the public boat ramp. To keep the state happy, he’s moored the vessels beyond the drip line of the bridge. To keep the Town of Wrightsville Beach happy, he’s collected money from his customers inside Wilmington city limits. 

Then things got more complicated.

Mangum’s problems started a few years ago after Wrightsville Beach officials changed their tune and started cracking down on jet ski rental companies at the behest of residents, according to a lawsuit. Meanwhile, an N.C. Wildlife Commission representative previously said there’s no problem with jet ski rental companies using the area as a launching zone.

After being cited 29 times by the Town for zoning violations between 2015-2018, Mangum was sued in Superior Court by the town for his continued operation of the jet ski rental business. When Mangum’s attorney failed to file a response and then withdrew, Mangum tried to fight the case pro se, but ultimately felt he was stuck signing a consent judgement that dropped the citation fees but also prohibed him from operating his business.

Take a deep dive into the issue here: After years without issues, what made Wrightsville Beach go after a jet-ski rental company?

Mangum took the case to the federal level, first to U.S. District Court and then, on Sept. 24, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, kicking off the next phase in a duel over the constitutionality of Wrightsville Beach’s jet ski rental laws. Mangum fears that without a court victory, he could be held in contempt of the state’s Superior Court ruling.

“This is driving me insane, what these people are doing to me,” Mangum said. “I will not go to jail over renting jet skis legally.”

He had been less active than usual at his normal spot for much of this summer, he said, because he was nervous about potential retaliation from Town officials. He said he’s been photographed in previous seasons while working, and has been perplexed for years over why it seems that his is the only watercraft rental company that has faced so much scrutiny from the local government.

A chance meeting, chief says

Jet ski rental companies have been issued zoning citations for operating under the bridge even though it is not in town limits (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

On Thursday, Mangum sat in a chair under the bridge, conducting business as usual. It caught him by surprise to see Wrightsville Beach’s new police chief, David Squires. 

Squires said he was driving through the Town and noticed a car that appeared to be parked illegally next to the bridge. 

Squires got out of his vehicle to check it out, and that’s when Chris introduced himself, Squires said. It was the first meeting between the two since Squires arrived at the police department in August.

“I confirmed there was no parking violation. There was no problem, and I just wanted to get to know him,” Squires said. “I didn’t even know that it was Chris as I approached him. He introduced himself to me. It’s just not that big a deal.”

Squires researched the history of disputes between Mangum and the Town through the growing public record files, he said, and added that local police, in his experience, is not usually the lead agency handles alleged zoning violations.

“And so my perspective on all those kinds of issues, is that the Town and its attorney will work with Chris and his attorney, and anybody else, to resolve those issues, which is always the best way to do things,” he said.

Squires said he felt the meeting was inconsequential in terms of Mangum’s ongoing legal disagreements with the town.

“There was no affidavits submitted about yesterday. No pictures were taken,” Squires said. “Nothing happened other than I saw a guy parked next to a No Parking sign and I talked to him for a few minutes. That’s all that happened.”

Squires said there ended up being no problem with Mangum’s parked car, and he continued on his drive. Squires said he viewed the conversation as pleasant, and said he made no requests of Mangum to alter behavior or change business practices. 

Mangum had a different take on the meeting.

“He wasn’t down there just to fucking make friends,” Mangum said.

Mangum said Squires asked questions about the logistics of his business, and if the jet skis moored in the intracoastal waterway next to the two men belonged to Mangum.

This was a concern, since the past few years of Mangum’s life have largely been marked by snowballing legal problems involving the Town. After the citations and Superior Court judgement, he took the issue to federal court; this isn’t always a quick process, and Covid-19 certainly slowed it down.

Late last year, the court gave Mangum a two-part rejection. In large part, the court rejected his case because a judge believed his case had already been fully explored in state court. Mangum argued that the state decision should be void because the town doesn’t own the property where he launches his jet-skis (the state does, specifically the N.C. Wildlife Commission). The federal courts didn’t reject this argument, but essentially denied it because it hadn’t been raised in state court first. The courts did leave open some aspects of the suit, including allegations of civil conspiracy and unfair trade practices, open to be refiled, since they were denied ‘without prejudice.’

Mangum asked the federal courts to reconsider, but was rebuffed, leaving him in something of a holding pattern, until his meeting with Chief Squires.

Mangum said the conversation flustered him to the point of stopping rentals for the day and packing up. He said he immediately drove home to put on a collared shirt, then made his way to the federal courthouse with $500 — the fee for asking the U.S. Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit to look at his case.

“They want to throw me in jail. They want to get the last laugh,” Mangum said.

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