This article is the second in a three-part series on the legal battle surrounding the sale of Hofmann Forest. You can read Part One here.
When North Carolina State University’s College of Natural Resources announced plans to sell its 79,000-acre teaching forest in the southeastern part of the state, professors, foresters, and environmentalists banded together to try to stop the sale. A group of five plaintiffs, led by Professor Fred Cubbage of the university’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court in September 2013. The lawsuit alleged that the sale must be subjected to review under the State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA), a requirement that was not met before NCSU offered the property up for sale.
One of the main goals of SEPA, enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1971, is to ensure that the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reviews any action by a state agency which involves the private use of state land and which could have a “detrimental environmental effect.” The applicant agency must prepare an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment, which is then reviewed by the appropriate DENR division(s). Any significant environmental issues discovered during the review must be resolved before the agency can take the proposed action.
Representatives of NCSU have maintained that the sale of Hofmann Forest does not fall under the purview of SEPA because the property is not “public land. ” The university was so confident in its reading of SEPA that no studies have been conducted in order to determine the potential environmental impact of the sale. Ron Sutherland, a conservationist and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, has cited the fact that no property taxes have been paid on the land and that the Attorney General’s office has handled the case on NCSU’s behalf as evidence that Hofmann Forest is indeed public land.
The plaintiffs also claimed that the sale violates Article XIV, Section 5 of the North Carolina State Constitution. Section 5 requires the “State to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry.”
Superior Court Judge Shannon R. Joseph denied the plaintiffs’ request to enjoin NCSU from selling the property on November 12, 2013, on the basis that the sale had not yet been completed and the plaintiffs had failed to prove that irreparable harm would be caused in the event that the sale did go through. Joseph dismissed the entire lawsuit ten days later and ruled that SEPA did not apply to the sale. The plaintiffs filed an appeal with the North Carolina Court of Appeals the following week.
The Court of Appeals has declined to hear oral arguments in the case and will instead make a decision purely based on the briefs filed in late July 2014. Both sides hope that a decision will be issued by mid-October. The newest deal to sell the property is scheduled to close on November 17, 2014.