Town spends over $500,000 fighting $1,500 property damage claim

Town spends over $500,000 fighting $1,500 property damage claim

BOILING SPRING LAKES, N.C. (WECT) - It took five years, and over half a million dollars in attorneys’ fees, but a Brunswick County couple has finally won their case against the City of Boiling Spring Lakes.

Ed and Debra Wilkie sued the City in 2014, after Boiling Spring Lakes raised the lake level on Spring Lake at the request of another resident, and flooded the Wilkie’s property. The Wilkies lost the use of a significant portion of their backyard in July 2013, and ultimately sued the city for “inverse condemnation” when officials refused to lower the lake back to its original level. Under the Fifth Amendment, the government is required to compensate people for taking their property.

In July 2014, after another lake front resident filed a suit against the town similar to the Wilkie’s, the City lowered the lake level. But by that time, much of the Wilkie’s grass had been destroyed and had to be replaced. Surveyors estimated $1,500 in damages to the Wilkie’s property. The other neighbor suffered more significant damage, as the elevated lake levels washed out their bulkhead.

Ed Wilkie said initially, he wasn’t asking for any money, just to have the lake levels restored. But once litigation began, he asked the city for $1,500 to cover the damage to his land, plus his attorney’s fees up to that point. The city refused, and continued to rack up fees fighting the lawsuit.

The Wilkie’s case made it all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in the Wilkie’s favor. The case then went back to the Court of Appeals, and Brunswick County Court, before a final judgement for the Wilkies was filed this month.

The town paid the Wilkies just over $2,000 for their damages, plus interest. The other family who filed suit settled for $70,000. Ed Wilkie said between his attorneys’ fees, which ultimately totaled $326,624, the town’s attorneys’ fees, and other related expenses, this has cost taxpayers over $700,000.

“There’s no winners here. I’ve lost five years of my life I can’t get back. This is just such a waste,” Wilkie said of the situation, noting he’s glad it’s over. Wilkie said he asked the town 11 times to lower the lake level before he resorted to suing them, knowing that as a taxpayer he was ultimately suing himself.

“This is something that never should have happened,” Wilkie added. “I’m not a money hungry person. I just wanted what’s mine. You can’t come in and steal somebody’s property, just because you want a more picturesque view.”

The legal fees are not covered by insurance as is often the case with municipal lawsuits. Instead, the money has come out of the city's general fund. Wilkie said the city’s insurance carrier refused to cover the costs because the city had created the problem themselves by raising the lake level.

The City of Boiling Spring Lakes provided us a copy of the court judgement, and has kept us apprised of the expenses connected to this case over the years, but did not respond to our request for comment on losing the lawsuit.

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