By Trista Talton
Staff Writer

Topsail Beach is invoking its power of eminent domain – skipping a potentially long court battle – to obtain land for a public boat ramp.

“That procedure will allow us to take possession of the boat ramp in about 30 days, and we’ll be able to open it to the public for the summer season,” Mayor Butch Parrish said.

The property owner’s Raleigh-based attorney, Kieran Shanahan, calls the move “heavy handed” and “abusive authority.”

“It’s the ultimate trump card for the government,” he said.
Eminent domain is the right of a government to take private property for public use. Owners are compensated for their property.

In this case, a legal dispute between the town and property owner William Frank Lee began late last year when Lee filed a civil complaint against the town in Johnston County court.

By then, a contract to purchase the land at 912 S. Anderson Blvd., referred to as the old Bush Marina, had been drawn up and signed. The town had put down almost $400,000 as a deposit on the $2 million purchase.

But Lee stated the deal was off because he never received a signed copy of the contract and because the town didn’t hold up its end of the bargain by closing on the property by Nov. 4. The town filed a countersuit, saying Lee was in breach of contract.

“It appears that if we pursue the court case it will take two to three years to get it resolved, and we have no ability to keep that boat ramp open so we’re not willing to do that,” Parrish said.
Lee has owned the property for about two years and has allowed the public to use the boat ramp.

The town has agreed to pay him $2 million. But a jury trial will decide the final price for the property. The town is continuing its breach of contract suit in case the jury determines a higher price for the property. If that happens, the town will modify its suit to include damages to cover extra costs, Parrish said.

Shanahan said that, from day one, the town threatened to take his client’s property.

“It was Topsail who was unable to close the deal because they didn’t have the money,” he said. “My client has legitimate offers from third parties who are willing to pay twice what Topsail Beach is. They tied up my client’s property for almost a year. We think that it’s just unfortunate that they think they have to club him with eminent domain because they couldn’t close.”

Town officials say they did not have the blessing of the Local Government Commission or financing arrangements – $345,000 from the Coastal Resources Commission – by Nov. 4.

Shanahan said he’s going to regroup and research his client’s legal rights.
The town has been seeking land for a public boat ramp for more than a year. The closest public boat access is in neighboring Surf City.

Trista Talton: 343-2070 April 26, 2006