CAROLINA BEACH, NC (WECT) - For decades, Freeman Park has been a favorite spot for visitors to Carolina Beach and the Wilmington area, but the park hasn’t been welcomed by all.
In the early 2000s, when the park was first formed, landowners and heirs to the Freeman family begged the town not to monetize the park and allow vehicles on their land.
Conservationists also made pleas, citing the protection of sea turtles and seabirds, but the town moved forward with its plans.
It didn’t happen overnight. It took several agreements, including one that required New Hanover County to agree to give the town power over the property that is technically located outside of its jurisdiction.
Nearly two decades after its official inception, property owners are still at odds with the Town of Carolina Beach over the use of their land for a park—a park that makes the town millions of dollars each year—despite the fact the town does not own the majority of the land that makes up the park.
The town is currently embroiled in several lawsuits from private property owners of the land at the north end of Carolina Beach who want the town to stop allowing the destructive practices of driving on the beach, as well as camping on their private property.
But how did it get to this point?
The land at Freeman Park has a complex history dating back more than a century.
The property is named for the Freeman family, specifically, Bruce Freeman, a Black man who amassed thousands of acres of property in the Carolina Beach and Myrtle Grove area following the Civil War.
When he died in 1905, he left 5,000 acres of land to his heirs, according to Andrew Kahrl, author of the book, “The Land Was Ours.”
Included in the land was valuable timber property in the Myrtle Grove area as well as the less desirable oceanfront land at the north end of Carolina Beach. At that time, since the property did not offer much in terms of farming or timber, it was not seen as the valuable land it is today.
Throughout the years, the land was divided and distributed among heirs to the Freeman family, however, in the mid-2000s private corporations began purchasing the land from those heirs.
“Family members developed the ocean front as what came to be known as Freeman Beach or Bop City, and it became also a very popular destination for African Americans seeking pleasure and seaside entertainment in a time where much of the coastline of the American South was segregated. The land that the Freeman family owned became a really important cultural space for African Americans living in that region and also for the Freeman family; it became a source of economic activity over time,” Karhl said.
Although it has been a popular spot for visitors and residents for years it was not always a park, and it was not always controlled by the Town of Carolina Beach.
Even before private companies began buying the land from the Freeman heirs, property owners took issue with the lack of enforcement of laws at the north end.
Freeman Park was not officially established until 2004, but since the property of the park is not located in the town itself, an agreement had to be made between New Hanover County and Carolina Beach. That agreement, known as an inter-local agreement, gave the town extraterritorial jurisdiction to the town, or ETJ.
This allows the town to police the area, as well as enforce its own ordinances at the park. Prior to the agreement, the town did not have any authority over the area at the north end and could not make money from selling permits to drive on the beach.
At some point prior to August of 2004, the town created a committee called the North End ad hoc Committee, which is the group that helped explore the possibilities of the town controlling Freeman Park. While the committee comprised residents, the town denied members of the group called the Citizens for Conservation of The North End (CCNE) seats on the board.
Previously, the CCNE tried to get the county, and later the town, to prohibit driving on the beach. Documents show that the majority of property owners at the North End actively requested the county, as well as the town, to enforce no trespassing signs posted at the beach and stop vehicular access.
In February of 2003, New Hanover County was in the process of passing an ordinance that would have banned camping and open fires on the north end of Carolina Beach. Several members of the public, as well as members of the N.C. Coastal Federation, spoke in favor of the ban, citing the need to protect the habitats of sea turtles, birds, and protect private property rights. Despite support for the ban, county commissioners failed to pass the proposal.
In fact, at that county commissioner meeting, a member of the CCNE presented a report that showed just how much damage was occurring to wildlife in the area.
“According to Walker Golder, deputy director for the National Audubon Society, the number of birds nesting on the northern end of Carolina Beach has dropped to zero in the last five years. According to David Allen of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, a violation of the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act is occurring with habitat destruction for endangered species,” meeting minutes show.
Even with that evidence, the town and county continued to allow camping, driving, and other activities at the park.
It would take some time but eventually the town council created what is now known as Freeman Park.
On August 10, 2004, the town council officially approved an amendment to the town’s Code of Ordinances to include regulations for the management of Freeman Park. At that meeting, members of the CCNE spoke out against the plans and again, asked the town to reconsider.
“The North End Property Owners – are specifically those taxpayers who own the 334 acres of undeveloped beachfront property which you and the town council of the town of Carolina Beach and the County Commissioners of New Hanover County consistently allow illegal vehicular trespass. You have allowed this trespass to continue even when the owners representing the majority of the property have written Mayor Rothrock and yourself,” according to a letter to the mayor of Carolina Beach in 2004 from the CCNE.
Driving on the beach was not an activity that was always permitted, according to that same letter. In 2001, the town council reversed an ordinance that prohibited driving on the beach at the north end.
However, driving on the beach is not permitted anywhere else within the town limits.
Similarly, drinking on the beach and dog laws are much more relaxed at Freeman Park than they are within the Town of Carolina Beach’s own municipal limits.
Despite all of their concerns, the town moved forward with plans to monetize the park by selling passes to drive on the beach.
Shortly after passing the resolution approving the management of the park, New Hanover County and the town entered into the inter-local agreement giving the town ETJ rights over the property.
While private corporations might be in control of the majority of the property at Freeman Park now, and heirs to the Freeman family have all moved on from their ownership status, the struggle for private property rights, as well as the protection of natural resources and wildlife, continues.
One of the most commonly asked questions regarding Freeman Park is how exactly the town is allowed to charge people to access the beach—which, according to state law—is to remain open to the public.
While the town does not own most of the land at Freeman Park, it does claim ownership to a small percentage of the property. Specifically, the town claims it owns the first 1,000 feet and charges visitors an access fee to drive over its property—not to access the beach.
However, the ownership claims to that land have been questioned. In Part Three of this series, we will take a look at the land the town claims to own, and some of the doubts others have about the land’s lineage.