Rail Trail Property – The Rest of The Story

February 16, 2019 Off By Jay Hubbard

In an article, “Rail trail gap causes controversy over ownership” published in the Sunday, February 10th edition of the Asheboro Courier-Tribune, Larry Penkava wrote, “The half-acre segment, divided by Depot Street, is key to completing the second phase of the trail.

“That half acre became a huge issue after the board approved on Aug. 13, 2018, the application for a grant of $16,860 from the Randolph Community Health Foundation. At issue was the missing link, necessary for the grant approval.

“Mayor Danny Shaw said in an interview that the same day the board voted on the grant application, Commissioner David Overman applied for a quit claim deed on the property since the town believed the owner of the tract was unknown. Shaw said the board members had discussed filing their own quit claim on the property, but Overman beat them to it.”

At the beginning of his remarks to the Board on February 4th, Mayor Shaw stated that by virtue of the fact that a sewer line runs along the property, he is certain the town has an easement. I’m no legal scholar, but I’m pretty certain that the existence of a utility easement does not grant anyone legal rights to proceed with unrelated construction – not even to the mayor of Ramseur.

By Mayor Shaw’s own admission he has been leading the committee working on the rail trail project for almost a decade. On at least one occasion several years ago, I recall the Board of Commissioners discussing the Depot Street property in a public meeting. No board members, past or present, ever voted to authorize Ramseur’s attorney, Bob Wilhoit, to do any deed research or pursue a quitclaimProper deed research, had it been done, might have revealed who the probable owners of the property are. In fact, we now know that it would have; more on that later.

In the Courier-Tribune article, Mayor Shaw implied that Commissioner Overman sought to profit from confidential information, but that claim doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. The Deep River Rail Trail project was first discussed during public NC STEP team meetings almost ten years ago, and is part of the greater Deep River State Trail project authorized by the legislature in 2007. Since then it has been common knowledge that the proposed trail would follow the old railroad bed along the river. Anyone with a Internet connection could use the Randolph County GIS website to discover which properties the proposed trail would affect.

In 2017 David Overman purchased the old Pell’s Grocery store building for his vending machine business. That property adjoins the Depot Street property. Acquiring that property would give Mr. Overman access to Depot Street from the back of his lot, and makes sense from a business standpoint. Commissioner Overman has stated many times that he intended to make the portion of the property needed for the trail available to the town at little or no expense to taxpayers.

A resolution was passed by the Board of Commissioners, dated August 13, 2018, authorizing the mayor to apply for a grant from the Randolph Hospital Community Health Foundation to fund construction of the trail from Harlan’s Creek to Brooklyn Avenue. In the section of the grant application titled, ‘Project/program description’, found on pages 2 and 3, it states, “The portion of the trail corridor which is the subject of this request is under the town’s control via recorded easement and fee simple ownership,” but close examination of the list of properties in the grant application reveals that the Depot Street property is conspicuously absent from the list. Mayor Shaw’s is the only elected official’s signature on the document.

In the Courier-Tribune article, Mayor Shaw asks, “When (Commissioner Overman) reviewed the rail trail application, why didn’t he point out the fact that this parcel wasn’t currently owned by the town? After all, he is a commissioner for the Town of Ramseur … he should have made it known to the board and the mayor that the property in question was still needed to complete the application. The reason Commissioner Overman did not make the board aware was because he was seeking to sell this property back to the town …”

The mayor was, according to his own statement in the February 4th meeting, the only official authorized to apply for the grant. Ramseur commissioners are regularly told not meddle in departments they are not assigned. I witnessed Commissioner Cheek fly into a fit of rage once last summer, after Commissioner Caudle, who oversees parks & recreation and Ramseur Lake, called the town office with a question about one of Cheek’s departments. Cheek told her “to stay out of [his] department.” 

Cheek’s attitude is prevalent among several members of the Board and is not conducive to effective local government, especially in a town without a professional administrator. Commissioner Overman is in charge of overseeing the Ramseur Historical Museum and sanitation. Given the hostile environment created by attitudes like Commissioner Cheek’s, why would Mr. Overman be expected to review that grant application?

Only Commissioner Caudle asked to review the application, and a hiking trail does relate to her assigned departments. In this email from the Commissioner to Mayor Shaw, dated September 24, 2018, she made an appeal for the inclusion of additional letters of support and recommended more research be done to prove Shaw’s claim that all property and/or easements had been acquired by the town.

If Mayor Shaw has been working as diligently on this project as he would have us believe, since 2011, shouldn’t he be well aware which properties have been acquired and which have not? By last summer the list of unsecured properties ought to have been so short he could recall it from memory. After all, this is the same mayor who less than a year ago was complaining about having nothing to do because a previous board had tied his hands.

Mayor Shaw makes some pretty harsh accusations against Commissioner Overman in the Courier-Tribune and during the meeting.

Again, from the Courier-Tribune, “Commissioner Overman is sure to make himself a town hero,” Shaw said. “After all, he filed claims to a property that he has no legal rights to claim. Commissioner Overman could have at any time pointed out the fact that this parcel was not yet owned by the Town of Rameur. If Commissioner Overman had the best interests of the town at heart, he would have brought this matter before the board. Yet he was seeking to capitalize from it.

“Why would Commissioner Overman give an easement, rather than donate the parcel to the Town of Ramseur? … This goes to show that there could be potential future risk of the town having to purchase this property or an easement from him, if by some magical way he was to get away with theft and did in fact obtain a free and clear deed to this parcel. …”

Let me get this straight. Mayor Shaw is upset because David Overman made an effort to acquire a piece of property he needed that adjoins his business, which just happens to include a strip of land needed for construction of the rail trail. Shaw then tries to turn the public against Commissioner Overman by accusing him of doing something illegal that Shaw himself was prepared to do until he initiated deed research of his own last month. You can’t have it both ways Mr. Mayor. 

It turns out that the owners of the Depot Street property are not really unknown; the county tax department simply lost track of them, or so it appears.

When questions about property and history arise sometimes it’s necessary to call an expert, and in Randolph County our expert is Mac Whatley, widely respected as our county historian and, as luck would have it, also a real estate attorney. In a report requested by Mayor Shaw and dated January 25, 2019, Mr. Whatley writes, “The deed to the Overmans does not convey actual ownership of the property at tax parcel 8701513899, but looks like it does on its face. It was properly notarized, so the Register of Deeds had to accept it for recording. … But is is NOT a Quit Claim deed that actually conveys anything …”

Mr. Whatley continues, “When the Tax Department shows property as ‘Unknown Owner,’ it’s not because there is no actual owner, but usually because there are competing claims of ownership. It’s not the Tax Department’s job to decide who is the actual owner if there is a dispute. Properly, the Tax Department should now show the depot property as ‘Unknown Owner’ because the ACTUAL owner of record is the railroad and this purported deed creates a cloud on the title….”

In short, this entire argument could have been avoided by a few hours of deed research, which Mayor Shaw never pushed the Board of Commissioners to authorize in almost ten years working on this project. Apparently, Mr. Overman’s counsel also failed to do this bit of legal diligence as well, leaving the commissioner vulnerable to Shaw’s specious accusations.

Mac Whatley’s research reveals that Columbia Manufacturing Company deeded the property to the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad in 1891. Over a series of bankruptcies, reorganizations, mergers, and acquisitions over most of a century, the disputed property ended up in the possession of Norfolk Southern Railway.

What this means is that Mr. Overman’s quitclaim deed could easily be challenged in court should Norfolk Southern Railway choose to do so. Norfolk Southern pulled up tracks and sold off the gravel almost forty years ago, from what I’m told. So some individual paying ten years of back taxes and taking that potential tax liability off their hands might even be welcomed by the company at this point. They obviously aren’t planning to rebuild a road to Ramseur any time soon. 

Mayor Shaw could have placed this item on meeting agendas every month until it was done. Instead, as chair of the town’s governing board and organizer of a citizens’ committee dedicated to building the trail, he has failed to pursue the issue over and over again. The grant application plainly states that all properties necessary for the completion of the project have been secured. They quite obviously have not been, and Mayor Shaw is the only elected official of the Town of Ramseur to sign the application. 

If Commissioner Overman wanted to make himself ‘the town hero’ he could easily have gone to Norfolk Southern, had his attorney done the research, and told them about the trail project. He could have then negotiated the transfer on his own, gifted the land needed to the town, and saved the day. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the advice he received, and now here we are with over $16,800 in grant money at stake, for a project that everyone now knows cannot legally proceed.

The Deep River Rail Trail trail needs to be completed, but Commissioner Overman is not to blame for the road blocks facing the project. That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Mayor Danny R. Shaw.

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