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Eden landowner says the state is taking his property unlawfully
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Eden landowner says the state is taking his property unlawfully

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EDEN — The new Dan River Game Lands on the outskirts of town are the target of a heated dispute over the boundary lines for a tract that offers ready access to the project’s namesake river.

Game lands’ neighbor Byron Tabor contends state government has unlawfully appropriated 12 to 15 acres of his Woodpecker Road homestead for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission project slated to debut later this year as a mecca for hunting, fishing and boating.

State government acquired the future game lands in two separate transactions totaling more than $4.2 million. The fledgling preserve covers nearly 1,800 acres and includes several miles of river frontage meandering across an expanse that was all bought from a family partnership headed by Eden banker Grayson Whitt.

But Tabor contends that in closing land deals in March and in June 2017, Whitt Family Farms and state officials relied on an errant survey that resulted in a boundary line along part of the game lands’ eastern perimeter that he believes is inaccurate.

“You remember the old saying, ‘Don’t pee in my face and tell me it’s raining?’ ” Tabor said. “That’s what they are trying to do to me. I will go all the way to the Supreme Court; they are not taking my land.”

State officials say they have good reason to doubt Tabor’s claim to the disputed land, but one Wildlife Resources administrator recently recommended that the government open a title investigation with an eye toward settling the disagreement amicably.

Tabor, 49, and his family have owned their property since 2005, paying taxes on a 72.7-acre tract assessed for tax purposes at $205,000 in a rural area off Harrington Highway to the southwest of town. The family has lived there full-time since 2012, freely using the land that’s now in dispute without any complaints or challenges from his neighbors, Tabor said.

But the game lands’ boundary as now drawn would leave the family only 60 acres or less, he said, adding that he is confident the disputed wedge of land rightfully belongs to him. Tabor lives there with his wife, Mary, three young daughters and a college-age son.

To support his contention, Tabor said he has found a survey map drawn in 1926 and showing the neighboring property that is now about to become state game lands. That map excludes key geographic details of the disputed land, suggesting it was never part of the adjoining property that has now been conveyed to the state, Tabor said.

Missing from the map are such details as a lengthy and deep ravine, abandoned road right-of-way and a significant Dan River tributary — all things that Tabor believes logically would have been shown if they actually were part of the property that belonged to Whitt Family Farms before it was sold.

Instead, Tabor said, the 1926 map shows a field along what is now the game lands’ side of the disputed property line. And he notes that the map was used for official reference as recently as 1996 in a transaction that included the future game lands’ tract.

“You can’t mistake a gully for a field,” Tabor said of the deep ravine that’s not depicted on the map. “You can’t farm a gully.”

But state officials believe his faith in the 92-year-old map is misplaced. They point to recent mapping by Rockingham County surveyor C.E. “Gene” Robertson before the land sales that fixed the game lands’ boundaries along their current lines.

Robertson said he stands behind his survey work, but declined to comment on the dispute.

Eden real-estate broker Phil Hunnicutt — a participant in the second of the two game-land transactions — said a 1926 map of somebody else’s property is irrelevant to the dispute.

Hunnicutt said Tabor’s property lines are defined in an October 1954 survey that forms the basis for the Tabor family’s deed and that controls what the family actually owns. That survey also matches up with the new game lands’ boundaries through that area, he said.

“We’ve basically been scratching our heads on this thing,” said Hunnicutt, who helped broker the three-way sale earlier this year in which part two of the preserve’s acreage went first to the nonprofit Piedmont Land Conservancy and then to state government.

“It’s a one-sided argument,” Hunnicutt said. “We’re saying to him, ‘Show us something.’ ”

The Greensboro-based PLC bought more than 1,000 acres of the future game lands with the help of a $2.66 million grant from the state Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

The nonprofit group then transferred that acreage to state government for the Wildlife Resources Commission’s preserve. PLC declined to comment on Tabor’s assertions.

For years, the Whitt Family Farms’ property was one of the Piedmont Triad’s most coveted sites by conservationists, singled out as a target for preservation by regional planners nearly two decades ago. It stood out as one of the area’s few large, undeveloped tracts with such abundant river access.

Yet for years, its fate teetered between industrial development and conservation. At various times, it was in the running for development as a regional landfill, a state prison and a corporate megasite.

In addition to the Clean Water grant, the path to the property’s preservation was paved with a dollop of poetic justice: State government made its 2017 purchase of the game lands’ first 657 acres partly with a federal grant of $600,000 that came from Duke Energy’s criminal penalty for its historic negligence in handling coal ash, which had triggered a massive spill of spent ash three years earlier at the utility’s former Dan River Steam Station not too far downstream from the fledgling game lands.

Other participants in the recent purchases from Whitt Family Farms say they have urged Tabor repeatedly — but unsuccessfully — to hire a surveyor on his own, one who could compile an independent assessment that might either match Robertson’s handiwork or differ in ways that could range from insignificant to profound.

“It appears Mr. Tabor had done his own search and believed he was correct without the necessity of a survey,” said Eden lawyer Joseph Maddrey, who represents the Whitt partnership.

But Maddrey added that such professional surveys are essential, forming the necessary legal bedrock for land dealings by combining with a deed’s written description to define “a property’s location on the ground.”

State officials would need such documentation to seriously consider Tabor’s claim, said Brian McRae, who is supervising the game lands project for the wildlife agency.

“This is not the government trying to take somebody’s land,” McRae said. “If he can produce a survey or a plat of his property, we absolutely will engage with him and try to find a resolution.”

In fact, McRae said in an interview last week that he has referred the matter to the State Property Office in Raleigh, thinking that officials there would ask the title company that has insured the state’s purchase to “open an investigation regarding the boundary dispute.”

“Also, we have asked SPO (to) provide a letter to Mr. Tabor that acknowledges this disputed boundary and that we would like to work with him to resolve this matter,” McRae said in an email. “It is my understanding that this letter will also suggest that Mr. Tabor provide or obtain an official survey of his property in order to facilitate this discussion and help find an agreeable solution.”

But a spokeswoman for the property office that oversees state government’s real estate dealings said that McRae was too quick with his statement because “at this time, there is no investigation and no request for an investigation.”

“That’s not to say that something may not happen in the future,” spokeswoman Nan Sanseverino said in a telephone interview. But she added, “my understanding is that we own the property free and clear.”

Tabor said he’s had difficulty finding a surveyor who would tackle the assignment from his perspective, knowing in advance it would involve such a contentious situation that he describes as “a political hot potato nobody wants to touch.”

He said that some surveyors wanted him to reach an agreement with the adjoining land owner in advance about the disputed boundary line’s beginning and end points, which is one of the dispute’s fundamental issues that a survey might be expected to help answer.

But he is considering the possibility of working with one surveyor who seemed willing to re-examine his boundary line using the 1926 map to detail the acreage his family has used as its own since 2005, Tabor said.

Tabor noted that he doubts the authenticity of the 1954 survey that real estate broker Hunnicutt mentioned, saying that Rockingham County courthouse personnel have been unable to find such a document for him in any of their official record books.

Meanwhile, Tabor recently hired Yanceyville lawyer Ron Bradsher to represent him in the dispute, and Bradsher said last week he hopes the matter can be settled through negotiation.

“It’s a classic title dispute,” said Bradsher, who recently ran unsuccessfully for district attorney of Rockingham and Caswell counties. “I think they hope Byron is just going to lay down and go away, but it doesn’t sound to me like he’s going to.”

Tabor said he believes state government wants the disputed land because it includes the right-of-way for an abandoned section of Woodpecker Road that goes most of the way to the river.

“In one day with a bulldozer, they can have a way to the river,” he said, observing that the alternative — blazing an entirely new path — would be both costly and disruptive for the environment.

The controversy already has been heated at times. Hunnicutt said he and others involved in the transaction were concerned at times by posts on Tabor’s Facebook page.

Most of those posts focus on his ultra-conservative political viewpoint, his religious beliefs, snippets from family life and other anecdotes. But the page also includes some posts comparing his predicament to such situations as the impasse between the federal government and cattle rancher Cliven Bundy in Nevada, which included armed protesters who prevailed in a 2014 standoff over grazing rights on federal lands.

“I’ve (had) multiple patriots reach out to me and they have volunteered to come guard my land!!!” Tabor said in a Facebook response to one such post.

Friday, he said that definitely is not an outcome he wants to see, but he is determined to keep what rightfully belongs to him and his family.

Tabor said he was aggravated recently when several Wildlife Resources officials visited the site carrying sidearms. A team “painted” trees along the disputed property line to provide visible markers of the state’s acreage, wildlife official McRae said.

He said security officers were included in the detail because after an earlier visit “our folks got a sense that their safety could be in jeopardy.”

“It was not meant to intimidate, but just to ensure my staff’s safety,” McRae said.

Tabor said something that he had said earlier had been misinterpreted or blown out of proportion because the Wildlife Resources team had nothing to fear from him.

Rather he felt “bullied” by the whole incident, Tabor said. He said he knew several of the wildlife officers well and greeted them in a friendly manner, even if he did resent what he views as an unwarranted incursion on his private property.

An expert archer who teaches bow-hunting skills, Tabor said he and his family have used the land that’s in question as a favorite hunting spot for deer, turkey and other wildlife for the past 13 years.

“That’s where we all killed our first deer,” his college-student son, Luke Tabor, said of a rugged, wooded part of the disputed property.

If the state game lands take shape along the boundary line that state officials envision, Tabor said the new preserve would go right across the yard in front of his house, well to the east of Woodpecker Road that his house faces and that Tabor said has always been considered within the bounds of his property.

He’s seen plans for the project showing a parking lot nearby that Tabor said he foresees being a nighttime magnet for people drinking liquor or using drugs. But Tabor said he isn’t one of those “not in my backyard” types who opposes the Wildlife Resources Commission’s project.

To the contrary, he said he loves the idea of having such a preserve in his neighborhood; he just doesn’t want to donate what he believes rightfully belongs to his family and have hunting parties traipsing across what he still considers his front yard.

Contact Taft Wireback at 336-373-7100 and follow @TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.

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