© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Who owns Freeman Park? A conversation with WECT's Michael Praats

Vince Winkel
In theory, North Carolina beaches are public property. In practice, it's more complicated.

Freeman Park, on the north end of Carolina Beach, is a popular destination with a fascinating history. It's also a cash cow for the town. Over the last several weeks, WECT has published three parts in a series that digs into questions about who owns the beach, and how it came to be the way it is today. We invited journalist Michael Praats to the WHQR studio to discuss his work with us.

You can find Michael Praat's work here:

Ben Schachtman: I'm joined now by Michael Praats from WECT. Michael, how are you?

Michael Praats: I'm good, Ben. Thanks for having me.

BS: I'm glad to have you here. So there is a lot to unpack here. I don't think we're going to get to all of it, but I want to give people the broad strokes before we send them over to WECT to read your reporting, but for people who don't know what this is all about, what is Freeman Park?

MP: So Freeman park, first and foremost, it's in the town of Carolina beach, sort of, and it is one of their biggest moneymakers. In fact, it was only second to property taxes one year, as far as revenues go.

BS: So, it's become an established part of Carolina beach life and of course in New Hanover County people love to go to Freeman park, but there's some real questions that you started to dig into about how Freeman park actually turned into this cash cow for the town of Carolina Beach.

MP: Yeah, definitely. So there's a huge history with Freeman park and the Freeman family, it's really interesting. If you look into who the Freemans were, it's all talked about in the first and second part of this series. And we can see kind of the inklings that Carolina Beach had been looking at it for a while as a way to monetize this land and make money off it. The only problem was it wasn't their property.

BS: Flash forward to 2002 when two private condos abruptly turned over nearly 50 acres of land including that 1,000-ft stretch of land the town would later use.

MP: In 2002, we have an affidavit, after granting a 15-foot easement to better the condos, to give them water access, for some reason --- and we don't know why, and that's a big question --- they signed an agreement and gave away the rights to 48 acres of beach front property, including that first thousand feet.

And in the affidavit, you know, the gentleman who signed it actually says, Spinnaker Point and Oceana gave them this easement so that the town could control and charge access to the north end. So he's not mincing any words: this was done so the town could have control over that land.

BS: And that shows some real foresight because it wasn't until two years later that they got permission from the county to do it --- and then they start doing something else.

MP: Right. So they've, so they actually didn't get the permission, like you said, until 2004 from the County to have that extra territorial jurisdiction.
If you look at, if you go to Google Earth and you look at some satellite images, they have a pretty cool system that allows you to do a time warp basically. So, we did that and you know, if you go to Freeman park now, it looks like the driveway to the park was cut through a pair of dunes.

BS: But when you go back in time, you can see that road actually just used to just spill right out onto the dry sand beach. But now over the years, they've built up dunes around it, which kind of strengthens their case that they can operate on.

MP: Exactly.

BS: So here's the last part I want to get to is, so you had a lot of questions for the state, specifically the division of coastal management, who issue permits for some of the kinds of things the Carolina Beach was doing here. And if you can, just read some of the responses, you got, your questions and their responses.

MP: Yeah, absolutely. So the first thing we wanted to know was, did you give the town permission to build this little sand dune island off to the right? And as it turns out, no, they didn't.

So, I asked them why they would allow the town to put fencing up on property they don't own. They answered kind of with a non-answer saying the division's aware of property ownership disputes regarding this property. I just want to be clear. There is no dispute with most of the ownership of that property that they put the fencing on.

So they can't give us answers. You know, she summed it up in one word ‘no.’ They didn't have permission to build this. We don't know who did it.The town has directed me to an attorney for any questions about Freeman park. They're not willing to talk to me about it.

BS: Last thing here, you're not done. You're still looking into other aspects of it, I'm sure.

MP: Yeah, we definitely are. And it's something that's going to be drawn out for a few, at least a few more years, because there are currently ongoing lawsuits with the private property owners.

BS: Yeah. Which is a whole other issue. And you cover that. You're all over it and the three articles so far in this series, we'll have links to those on the page. Michael Praats from WECT. Thank you so much for coming by.

MP: All right. Thanks for having me.