Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Carolina Beach announces $7M deal to settle Freeman Park lawsuits

New ropes and posts have been installed in Carolina Beach's Freeman Park, but it is not the work of private property owners (Port City Daily photo/JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Fighting between Carolina Beach and property owners who laid claim to the popular excursion spot on the north end has stopped. (Port City Daily/Johanna F. Still)

CAROLINA BEACH — The lawsuits and land disputes that for years have swirled over Freeman Park — the vehicle-friendly beachfront at the north end of Carolina Beach — have been settled. 

The Town of Carolina Beach will pay $7 million to an assortment of private landowners, who had bought chunks of the protected coastal territory from heirs to the Freeman family over the years, town officials announced Friday. 

In exchange, Carolina Beach will have full control of 300 acres at its north end, laying to rest years-long spats over eminent domain and attempts from the town to procure easements for beach renourishment. 

“It’s preservation of 300 acres of open space, which to my knowledge is the largest park in New Hanover County,” said Mayor LeAnne Pierce. “This is all for future generations to enjoy.” 

The town hoped to seize the property in 2018, but later faced issues even procuring the temporary easements. The property owners, who sought to develop the coastal area, sparred with the town by installing fences and seagrass on the land, in an attempt to fortify their position. 

Carolina Beach owns the land upon which vehicles can pay to enter and exit Freeman Park, but never owned the majority of the parkland, where patrons can also buy camping passes. Access has been limited intermittently in response to worsening erosion. Previously, the property owners rebuffed the town’s attempts to use the land for practically any purpose 

The settlement includes a $500,000 down payment, and the remaining balance, financed by the property owners, is subject to 20-year amortization at 5% interest, according to town leaders.  

“We look to partner with UNCW Marine Sciences, Masonboro-dot-org, different organizations, to have living classrooms, kayak launches, trails through the areas back there,” Pierce said. “It’s just beautiful back there.” 

The costs will be financed by the user fees of Freeman Park, rather than through tax dollars. Town council will hold another special meeting Monday morning to work up a budget amendment that will cover the down payment.

Pierce and council member Steve Shuttleworth spent Tuesday in Raleigh, mediating with the representatives of the limited liability companies at odds with the town. The deal was brokered that day, and discussed among council at a closed session meeting Friday. 

Pierce and Shuttleworth, along with council members JoDan Garza and Lynn Barbee, did not seek re-election this year (Barbee ran for mayor instead and won). 

READ MORE: Familiar characters to fill new roles in Carolina Beach following election

“The park, at 300 acres, is about half the size of Central Park in New York City,” Shuttleworth said. “It’s five times the size of Ogden Park, almost five times the size of Long Leaf Park. It’s a tremendous opportunity for our community to be in the forefront of how we can develop a natural park setting.”

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