Deeds, misdeeds, 1947 law & the original vision of Pungo Hospital

People in Belhaven have been asking themselves: what would our parents, grandparents and great grandparents do in the conflict over Pungo District Hospital? What would they think of it? How would they have resolved it?

I think I found an answer in the Registry of Deeds in the Beaufort County Courthouse in Washington, NC.

It turns out that the parcel of land where the hospital building sits was donated by the Town of Belhaven to the Pungo District Hospital Corporation spelling out that it is to be used for a hospital.

The Town of Belhaven under the leadership of Mayor W.P. O'Neal (no relation to Mayor Adam O'Neal) passed a resolution in January 1948 to deed the property to Pungo District Hospital Corporation.  
WHEREAS, the Board was authorized and empowered by Chapter 659 of the Session Law of 1947 to convey the for the use of a hospital to be operated by a nonprofit, non-stock corporation to be organized for said purpose, that of of Allen Street 100 fee wide extending from Front Street Southwestwardly to Pantego Creek, and
WHEREAS, such a corporation has now been organized and chartered for such purpose under the name of Pungo District Hospital Corporation and has requested the Town to convey said property to it for the use of a hospital to be erected thereon,

In April 1947, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law -- Chapter 659 of the Session Laws of 1947 -- explicitly stating that the public property conveyed to Pungo District Hospital Corporation by the Town of Belhaven is to be used for a hospital or in a manner that the Town Council (Board of Alderman) consider to be in "the interest of the people" of Belhaven. 
The said property shall be conveyed to such hospital as may be determined by the board of alderman of said town, without consideration other than the benefits to be derived by the citizens of said town from the construction and operation of the hospital on the said property; and said board of alderman, in its discretion, is hereby fully authorized and empowered to appropriate and use the said property for hospital purposes in any other manner which, in its opinion, will be for the interest of the people of the said town

This is the deed that designated Pungo District Hospital Corporation as the owner of the property signed January 21, 1948 by Mayor W. P. O'Neal. 
[I]n consideration of the benefits to be derived by the citizens of the Town of Belhaven from the construction and operation of a hospital on the property hereinafter described pursuant to the authority granted by Chapter 659 of the Session Laws of 1947.

It turns out that Mayor Adam O'Neal's maternal great grandfather and step great grandmother -- George W. Clark and Glayde E. Clark -- owned the property on both sides of Allen Street in 1947.  They graciously released their rights to the street so that it can be closed for use of a hospital

Although Mayor Adam O'Neal did know that his great grandparents owned some property where the hospital sits, he did not know about their enormous contribution which led to the building of the hospital.

The said property is the largest parcel identified as Pungo District Hospital on this surveyor map. 

Although laws can be interpreted in different ways, it makes sense that the property given by the Town of Belhaven for the expressed purpose of building a hospital should go back to the town if it is no longer used as a hospital. 

It can be argued that as of July 1, 2014 when the hospital closed, people of the Town Belhaven are rightful owners of this parcel of land. Al McSurely, lawyer for NC NAACP, agreed that a legal argument is there. Attorney Misa Raynor of Belhaven also thought there is an argument there.

My hunch is that no one at Vidant knew about this law. Since it was public land, there was no title to it. I think lawyers were thrown off because the surveyor map identifies the property as "abandoned" when it should have said "protected by 1947 state law."

I came across the deeds last Wednesday afternoon when I was in the Beaufort County Courthouse thinking that the hearing on the restraining order against Pantego Creek LLC and Vidant Health was to take place there. It turned out the hearing was the following day in Wilson. I saw Betty Murphy at the courthouse lobby when Eric Byler and I ran into the building thinking we were late for the hearing. Betty Murphy is the guru on the subject of Vidant Health and has been a guardian angel for Story of America as we followed the story of the hospital closure in Belhaven. Seeing my disappointment that we made the trip to Washington for no reason, Betty showed me the Registry of Deeds around the corner from where we were standing. The wonderful staff there helped me search for the original deeds.

As I looked through those documents, I had a very strong feeling that it was no coincidence that I was standing there with those heavy books on a hot day in August 2014. I just knew that these deeds created 66 years ago must be used in some way to counter the misdeeds committed by Vidant Health. (It is true that the first thick book I took down off the shelf opened right to the page that shows the Clarks release their rights to Allen Street for the use of a hospital.) 

Whatever legal arguments that Vidant Health or Pantego Creek LLC want to make about who owns the property, we can see that the founding fathers and mothers of the Town of Belhaven saw fit to protect the property from falling into the wrong hands. Their intention is clear: this property belongs to the people. It is their wish that the people and their elected representatives have the power to make the decision about the fate of the hospital not Vidant Health and four managers of Pantego Creek LLC who are not accountable to the public.

While I don't know if these words spoken and written over 66 years ago will help resolve the current conflict as a legal matter, I do know this: these documents can serve as a reminder to everyone involved in the current conflict what this is all about and help revive a shared moral conscience. 

The original vision back in 1947 was a moral one: a hospital that would treat all people regardless of race, religion, or income in accordance with the Hill-Burton Act of 1946 and recommendations of North Carolina's Poe Commission created in 1944 by Governor J. Melville Broughton (1941-45). 

Along with support from government, many financial and personal sacrifices were made by the people of Belhaven to fulfill the vision of the hospital. It seems to me that the spirit of personal sacrifice for the common good needs to be restored again if this hospital is to be reopened and our overall healthcare system fixed.

The founders created something out of nothing; surely, the people in conflict with each other today -- many of them are direct descendants of the founders listed in the Articles of Incorporation for the Pungo District Hospital Corporation -- can come together to avoid destroying what already exists.


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  • commented 2014-08-16 14:41:34 -0400
    I suggest that the people of the Town of Belhaven ask their elected representatives at the Belhaven Town Council, Beaufort Co. Commissioners, and NCGA to enforce this 1947 state law and revert the property back to the People of Belhaven since you are the rightful owners.

    It seems that Belhaven Town Council can pass a resolution immediately to file for a Reversion of the property. I suggest that you contact Mayor O’Neal and town council members, Greg Satterthwaite, Julian Goff, Tony Williams, Robert Stanley, and Vic Cox, and ask them to take action. I have a feeling that they would be quite receptive to hearing from the people.
  • commented 2014-08-16 12:57:35 -0400
    On “Health Communities United” (Facebook) questions are being asked about what this means. Here’s my guess:

    STEP 1: The town of Belhaven reclaims the property on behalf of the People for the purpose of a hospital when a state court finds that Vidant Health and Pantego Creek, LLC are in violation of state law by seeking to use the property for other purposes.

    STEP 2: The grant monies and donations that have been available and in waiting to resume emergency services (a hospital) in Belhaven will be freed up because there will no longer be the appearance that some combination of Vidant Health, Inc. and the management/legal counsel of Pantego Creek, LLC control the property.

    STEP 3: The new hospital board secures those grants and donations, and accepts the $2 million loan from the county of Beaufort that had been blocked by some combination of Vidant Health, Inc. and the management/legal counsel of Pantego Creek, LLC.

    STEP 4: The US Department of Justice mediates a new settlement under which Vidant Health is made to contribute, not just the $1 million it promised to contribute but withheld after the first settlement, but probably a much larger sum, and, is made to return the beds and other medical equipment it removed from the premises, and, is made pay to repair the damage it has done to the building.

    STEP 5: The town and the region come together in the spirit of public service, love of neighbors, and care for future generations — the same spirit under which the hospital was created and maintained for 60 years.

    STEP 6: The hospital reopens.