5/08/2006

North Topsail Beach using its eminent domain power: New Bern (NC) Sun Journal, 3/21/06

By Chrissy Ingram

Owners of condemned homes on the north end of North Topsail Beach vied to retain control of their homes at a meeting Monday night.

But fear of danger to passersby, as the front row of homes now sits precariously in the ocean at high tide, led the town’s Board of Aldermen to vote to use eminent domain to tear the homes down.

The eight homes were condemned after being destroyed by Hurricane Ophelia in September 2005. One of the homes was moved off the island this week.

“I really suspect we may have a serious tragedy up there,” town attorney Robert Kilroy said. “Some kid may get killed or seriously injured. This is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.”

If another storm came through, he said, the houses would be “like a barge floating around, knocking out everything in its path until it is disintegrated.”

Choosing to use eminent domain will allow the town to file a summons and complaint against property owners, thereby transferring all rights to the town, Kilroy said. The town would then have to provide “just compensation.”

Aldermen voted to have an appraisal done as soon as possible to determine the compensation. The Onslow County Tax Office recently revalued the homes at $100 each.

“It’s been a long, long journey for me in the past seven months,” homeowner Janice Forster said. “I’m sitting behind my house watching it every day. I don’t want anybody to get hurt on my property, but if you think you can come in and offer me $200 on my property, you’re kidding yourselves.”

Property owners were notified by the town last year that they had 30 days to present a plan for their homes — whether it be to have the homes demolished, moved or otherwise.

That deadline was extended by 30 days before the town held a public hearing on the matter. No action was taken until Monday.

But attorney Ron vonLembke, representing property owners of four of the homes, said in a letter read to the board that owners needed more time to receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to tear the homes down. He strongly urged the board not to use eminent domain.

“Once the structures are declared a total loss, my clients will each receive $30,000 ($60,000 for each duplex structure) from FEMA to demolish and remove the buildings as desired by the town,” the letter read.

But due to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA’s adjustment process has gone from an average of 60 to 90 days to nine to 12 months, vonLembke wrote.

“As a result, victims of Hurricane Ophelia in North Carolina are being treated as an afterthought with inadequate resources,” he added.

FEMA has not yet come to a conclusion on coverage or compensation for the homes. Some home owners said they still had not gotten compensation from their insurance companies.

One homeowner, who said it took him four months to get an insurance adjustor to his home, even wanted to keep his home on its current lot.

“There is technically nothing wrong with my house, except I need to straighten the pilings,” said James Ewalt of New Jersey. “I can hook up my sewer and water. I have done everything you people asked me to do.”

Ewalt said that upon his recent return, he found his home robbed of all valuables.

“Don’t just say we’ll get rid of these seven houses and our problems will go away,” he said. “We need beach maintenance. You know, sooner or later this island is going to go — the big kahuna is coming.”

Property owners will soon receive a 30-day notice of the town’s intent to use eminent domain. Homeowners will then be able to file an injunction against the town.

“At a minimum, this would extinguish or significantly delay the town’s taking and demolition of the structures,” vonLembke wrote.

The property owners’ structures have an insurance value in excess of $800,000 each, he said.

“It seems to me we are being driven to take action,” Alderman Dan Tuman said. “They represent a threat to public safety.”


Sun Journal: http://www.newbernsj.com