It’s hard to believe that only now, in 2009 and in the middle of several investigations of former governor Mike Easley and wife Mary, are people really taking a hard look at what has to be one of the most shaky land deals involving a politician in state history — well recent state history anyway.
I’m talking, of course, about Cannonsgate. Never heard of it? Well, it’s a gated waterfront and marina community still under development on the N.C. 24 corridor between Swansboro and Morehead CIty that few outside that particular area seem to know about or recall.
And it’s another sizeable chunk out of whatever now grotesque statue might have been errected in Raleigh to Easley for the pleasure of pigeons still to be born.
The News & Observer last week reported about several anomaies regarding the sale of property at Cannonsgate back in 2005.
At that time I was working at the Jacksonville Daily News but lived in the town of Cape Carteret, which is about three miles from the planned subdivision with lot prices ranging from about $350,000 to nearly $700,000. That’s a lot folks, no dwelling, no structure, no garden shed, no outhouse and I’m not even sure what the water and sewer situation might be down there. Septic systems on the coast are sketchy things, believe me. Still, the fabulous brick entrance went up before any home. Some lots have boat access, some have waterfront access and a few have both.
To the best of my recollection, Easley’s has both.
Everybody in Carteret County knew it was a weird deal but nobody would speak about it on the record — and many still won’t. But lots of people in my neighbrhood discussed the subdivision because it was another sign that property values in our general vicinity were moving into an area beyond way out of control and into simply the realm of shocking. Let’s just say that a many,many people who bought water and ocean front property for pretty cheap back in the 1980s made out like bandits when they unloaded land in Bogue, Pine Knoll Shores, Cape Carteret and Emerald Isle from 2004-2007 — before real estate everywhere went belly up. A guy sold Arrowhead Campground in Salter Path for a cool $10 million and retired to Emerald Isle because he could finally afford it.
But Cannonsgate was even bigger. It was a planned community with a gate house, clubhouse, marina and other amenities that most who owned land once used a trailer parks, did not. That wasn’t too unusual for Carteret County at this time. Lots of MacMansions went up in Harkers Island and other once tranquil locales where mainly local fishermen and farmers lived. It was a shame really. I recall a woman telling me that Carteret County used to be nice but it was turning into the home she ran away from — Long Island, N.Y.
Anyway, many nuts and bolts about the deal for Easley involved some state clearance of regulations for the marina. Then, as the stories go, Easley got a “sweetheart” deal. The Carolina Journal, a publication of the conservative John Locke Foundation, reported this in 2006 — but so did the Charlotte Observer, wihch took the matter much further.
While there was plenty of smoke, a denial by Easley, who was still laughably operating as governor at the time, put out any momentum a political fire might have achieved.
According to the N&O, in June 2005, the Easley administration granted a sewage-treatment permit for Cannonsgate.”Twelve days later, Easley wrote a $5,000 check as a deposit for a choice lot. Easley paid an additional $49,988 check for a down payment in August. In November, the Easleys signed a contract to pay $549,880 for the lot. Three weeks later, at closing, R.A. North gave the Easleys a 25 percent seller’s discount worth $137,470. With that discount, the Easleys paid $412,410 for the lot and walked away from the closing with $135,000 in cash. The deed on file in Carteret County reflected the original sales price of $549,880.”
Now, in 2006, when Carteret County released its new property revaluations, the estimate on Easley’s lot — and this is a plain ol’ lot mind you, not even a driveway could be found there — at just over $1.1 million. That, too, wasn’t unsual for coastal property back then. A similar reval on Topsail Island about that time saw home values go up as much as 800 percent.
So I got a reporter to Easley’s office to find out if he might appeal his tax bill just like anyone else. We got a generic comment and moved on.
While friends of Easley and others connected to the deal defend it as a pretty common real estate transaction, for regular folks that’s hardly the case. Too many people connected to Easley or who received favors from the former governor are involved.
And the N&O story also makes the point that the deal should have been reported by Easley right away. Easley’s an attorney. He knows better.
Would more transparency in government have lifted the veil on this situation? Hard to say. Easley would have to be honest about from the start. And as state and federal investigations unfold, that seems a murky proposition.