A Virginia couple has filed a class-action lawsuit against local governments on the Outer Banks seeking damages for out-of-town property owners denied access to their homes due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The suit in the U.S. District Court of Eastern North Carolina was filed May 15 by Joseph and Linda Blackburn of Richmond, Virginia, who own a home in Frisco on Hatteras Island. The suit is open to any non-resident property owner and seeks damages from the governments of Dare County, Nags Head, Manteo, Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, Southern Shores and Duck.
Unlike an April lawsuit brought by property owners contending the shutdown of the Outer Banks was unconstitutional, the latest suit claims the closure amounted to an illegal seizure of out-of-town owners’ property in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
On March 20, the Dare County Control Group — a multi-jurisdictional policy-making body that assumes a leadership role for the entire county during emergencies — amended a March 17 emergency declaration restricting visitor access to include non-resident property owners. Dare County did not reopen again to out-of-town property owners until early May.
Eastern North Carolina attorney Lloyd C. Smith Jr., who filed the class-action suit on behalf of property owners, said that by allowing Dare County residents, workers and residents of nearby counties to come and go during the bridge closures, local officials were selective in who they denied access.
“They were real selective how they did it, and who they chose to punish was the non-resident property owners,” Smith said.
In the suit, Smith argues that during that time, non-resident property owners “had no rights whatsoever to and in their real property in Dare County but were subjected to continual taxes and such utilities bills as may be required.” Property owners also lost fair market value for property rentals during the 45-day shut down.
The suit asks the county governments to pay damages, which would include rental losses during that time.
Smith said his office will soon set up a website for interested property owners to get more information about the suit. Until then, anyone interesting in joining can call his office at 252-794-3161.
“We’ll send a contract and save them a seat at the table,” he said.
The suit has been served to Dare officials, according to court records. Dare spokeswoman Dorothy Hester said the county does not comment on active litigation.
Smith is also representing Hatteras-based Surf or Sound Realty in a challenge to the North Carolina Real Estate Commission’s opinion that people who rented vacation homes this spring but were denied access should have their funds refunded.
Smith, in an opinion issued for Surf or Sound Realty, contends that paying refunds shouldn’t fall on realty companies and homeowners, but instead Dare County and the Outer Banks’ town governments.
Based on that opinion, Surf or Sound has recently notified dozens of vacation renters that their deposits and other payments won’t be refunded, unless the property owner decides to do so. Surf and Sound instead is offering vacationers alternative weeks.
In addition, all out-of-town owners who use Surf or Sound for vacation-rental management will automatically be added to the class-action lawsuit unless they opt out, according to a letter the realty company sent to homeowners.
Dozens of renters who lost funds to Surf and Sound due to the bridge closures are attempting to launch their own lawsuit seeking refunds. The thwarted vacationers have launched a Facebook group to share information, which had more than 500 members Tuesday morning.