Pinebluff Land Deal Prompts Habitat Suit
Attorneys from the UNC Center for Civil Rights and Habitat for Humanity filed a lawsuit Friday over a deal in which property in Pinebluff was bought out from under Habitat last year.
They are suing the town, the mayor and council and town attorney, both in their official capacity and personally, as well as the sellers and buyers of the property.
The suit claims Mayor Earlene McLamb and the Town Board worked together to interfere with a contract Habitat had to buy land along Thunder Road for new homes, and that Town Attorney William Morgan helped them do it.
In addition to seeking actual damages, the plaintiffs want the court to make an example of Pinebluff and award Habitat "without limitation, compensatory, consequential, exemplary and punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial, plus interest, as allowed by law" plus costs and attorneys' fees, documents filed Friday say.
The suit seeks treble damages and the property as well, asking for an order for conveying the property to Habitat and an injunction ordering Pine-bluff "to issue all necessary permits and make all necessary zoning changes to allow" Habitat to construct "no fewer homes than originally proposed."
Habitat is represented by Dudley Humphrey, of Winston-Salem, and by Julius Chambers and two other attorneys from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.
The suit asks the court to declare fair housing violations and asks that all the defendants, "their agents, employees, and successors be permanently enjoined from discriminating on the basis of racial and familial status" and be ordered to take "appropriate affirmative actions to ensure that the activities complained of above are not engaged in again by them."
All the defendants committed numerous violations of federal law, race discrimination, acts of intimidation and coercion, and acted with malice, the suit alleges.
It claims McLamb and the Town Board, with help from Morgan, interfered with Habitat's contract by inducing sellers Jackie, Brenda and Shane Upchurch to breach it. It says Pinebluff officials deliberately delayed issuing a court-ordered conditional-use permit (CUP), "such delay being part of a plan and series of events to interfere" with Habitat's contractual rights "and ensure that the Thunder Road Property was not sold" to Habitat.
The suit contends that the Upchurches breached their contract with Habitat and deceived Habitat by saying they would sell to Habitat and would close on the property as soon as Pinebluff issued the CUP while they were actually negotiating a sale to others, and claims they made misrepresentations and committed unfair and deceptive trade practices in violation of state law.
It goes on to say that Pinebluff and all the others broke laws enacted just after the Civil War by denying blacks "the same right to make and enforce contracts (and) the same right to hold property as is enjoyed by white citizens."
Habitat for Humanity of the N.C. Sandhills is affiliated with Habitat for Humanity International but is an independent nonprofit organization. The local affiliate has been expected to challenge the Thunder Road property deed in court if hopes for compromise failed. That is what has happened, according to the lead attorney in the cast.
"This lawsuit was a last resort after attempts to resolve the controversy with the parties failed," Humphrey said in a telephone interview Friday.
Attempts to reach McLamb were unsuccessful.
Last year, while Habitat was working to clear a title question on that land, others filed papers appearing to show they had bought it instead. Now Mary Unsworth, Jesse and Daneen Gore, Cecil Hammonds Jr., Michael and Cynthia Thompson, Robert and Sharon Stevens are named as defendants along with Morgan, McLamb and town commissioners Jerry Williams, Sharon Fox, Susan Zoppi (individually as well as in their official capacity on the board).
This latest battle comes on the heels of Habitat's two-year struggle with Pinebluff over a CUP that had ended with a victory for the nonprofit group when both a Superior Court judge and the state appeals court decisions ordered town officials to issue the permit.
Papers filed with the register of deeds indicate buyers paid $550,000 for the property. If Habitat is successful, it will have the land without having to pay for it along with whatever punitive and other damages are awarded.
The complaint was signed by Tim Dwyer, chairman of the board of Habitat for Humanity of Moore County (now Habitat for Humanity of the N.C. Sandhills).
"Clearly, there has been a breach by the seller," Dwyer said last year as the now unsuccessful effort to find a peaceable solution was getting started. "The gentleman we were dealing with turned around and sold it to this group of five even though we had a contract."
The theory under which Habitat makes one complaint is called "tortious interference" -- which is when a third party, knowing a contract exists, induces one of the parties to breach it.
"One of them attempted to buy a piece (of the tract) while (the CUP appeal) was still in court," Dwyer said. "Clearly, this was an action to block our development."
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 year. Morgan said he was acting for and being paid by the town when he made telephone calls assisting the rival buyers.
Habitat met with representatives from the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now the center is taking an active part in the lawsuit.
Habitat tried to reach an agreement before going to court. Dwyer said they told neighboring property owners that Habitat would consider selling as much as half of it to them to create a land buffer.
"We even conveyed that to the town through their attorneys before the appeal was decided," Dwyer said.
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story