Habitat Considers Challenging Deed
Habitat for Humanity could challenge a Pinebluff deed in court.
As the charity was working to clear a title question on that land, a group of rival buyers filed papers appearing to show they had bought it instead.
This latest battle comes on the heels of a nearly two-year struggle with the town over a conditional-use permit that had ended with a victory for the nonprofit group when both Superior Court and state appeals court decisions ordered Pinebluff to issue the permit.
Then, last month, a group of residents filed a deed to the property instead. Jesse E. Gore, Cecil W. Hammonds, Jr., Robert Jeffrey Stevens, Michael C. Thompson and William H. Unsworth claimed to have bought it themselves. Papers filed with the Register of Deeds indicate they paid $550,000. That was more than the $502,260 in Habitat's contract.
That deed could be set aside if Habitat has to go to court again, according to Tim Dwyer, chairman of the board of Habitat for Humanity of Moore County.
"That is a question our attorneys are looking at," Dwyer said Monday. "It would be an extreme remedy, but not beyond realm of possibility. Clearly, there has been a breach by the seller. The gentleman we were dealing with turned around and sold it to this group of five even though we had a contract."
Another court victory might or might not get the property back.
"Before we proceed to legal action in this matter, we want to get a handle on what a successful outcome would be," he said. "Would a judge set aside the sale and let Habitat buy? Or, if successful, would we only get damages?"
One theory under which Habitat might proceed is called "tortuous interference." That is when a third party -- knowing a contract exists between two other parties -- induces one of them to breach it.
Habitat clearly appears to have grounds for a complaint on those grounds against one or all of these alleged buyers, Dwyer said.
"One of them attempted to buy a piece (of the tract) while the appeal was still in court," he said. "Clearly, this was an action to block our development."
Cloud From Lawsuit
The sale would have gone through were it not for a cloud on the title from a lawsuit that was later dismissed, he said.
"We were down to within 48 hours of scheduling a closing date, talking about closing on a Wednesday when our attorneys -- doing due diligence -- found an attachment on the property that had to be removed before we could close," Dwyer said. "It arose from a suit filed by William Unsworth. He signed a contract last October to buy 10 acres of the 83. Should Habitat not buy the property, they would subdivide it and sell him this 10 acres. When the court order was back in force, they upped the price and said 'We want to buy the whole 83 acres.'
"Unsworth was one of the five who closed in March on the 83 acres. One of the others apparently made a comment that they were considering subdividing and reselling it for horse farms."
Pinebluff's town attorney had helped these new buyers try to get the property away from Habitat, according to his testimony in another court case last month. William H. Morgan said he was acting for and being paid by the town when he made telephone calls assisting the rival buyers.
A statement by attorney Frank Thigpen that Habitat breached the contract itself by failing to make a $1,000 payment is wrong, Dwyer said.
"That was totally erroneous," he said. "We had paid $5,000 and had another $5,000 in a trust account with our attorneys. In our purchase contract, there is no reference to a $1,000 payment or earnest money of any kind involved. At the time we received the letter from Mr. Thigpen, we told him $5,000 was in escrow and would be released at closing."
If efforts to reach an acceptable compromise fail, Habitat could find an ally. Habitat recently met with representatives from the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"They have been following this whole transaction," Dwyer said. "They are reviewing the sequence of events. They said they would be back to us and let us know if they see justification for their becoming involved in this. No decision has been made by them or us on legal action going forward."
Habitat would much rather find a peaceful compromise with its prospective neighbors, he said.
"Our attorneys are in discussions with attorneys for the seller, as well as those who say they bought it," Dwyer said. "We have not made any decision to initiate formal legal action. We are certainly considering it to see if there is some way to work this out."
Habitat would rather make peace with Pinebluff than go to court.
"Last year -- when Pinebluff's appeal was still under way -- we talked with neighbors and said if they were interested, we would consider selling as much as half of it to them to create a land buffer between them and our property," he said. "We even conveyed that to the town through their attorneys before the appeal was decided."
They had asked if Pinebluff would agree to accept an amended permit application and drop their appeal but were told no. A letter from Morgan indicated any material change in the permit or in the property would make it void, and new applications would come under revised zoning with minimum square footage, effectively blocking Habitat's small homes.
Hope for Compromise
Dwyer still hopes Pinebluff and other parties can reach a compromise that would allow Habitat to use at least some of this land.
"We are really, really strapped for affordable real estate in southern Moore County," Dwyer said. "We don't have a lot of choices in our price range. It is more and more difficult to find buildable land in the scope of our economics. That is why we fought so hard for this land. It has availability of municipal water, is very attractive. We are trying to avoid -- as long as we can -- going to land in adjoining counties where our homeowners would have to commute over longer distances at today's gas prices."
He remains optimistic that a compromise could be worked out.
"We would be happy to build fewer houses, have more green space," he said.
But if those efforts fail to come to some reasonable agreement, it could end up in court.
"We have certainly not thrown in the towel on this project," Dwyer said. "We are certainly going to try to have at least a portion of the property for Habitat development.
"Habitat homeowners are the people who take care of our kids in schools, our parents in home and hospice, and us when we go to the hospital."
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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