Future of New Bern business in doubt following property dispute with NC Railroad

Maurice Howland, owner of the Shop Class on Guion Street in New Bern, is working to resolve a property dispute with North Carolina Railroad Company. (NBN Photo/Todd Wetherington)

A New Bern business owner is being forced to make a tough decision after receiving an ultimatum from the North Carolina Railroad Company pay up or face legal action.

When Maurice Howland, owner of the Shop Class community woodworking business, purchased the brick building at 406 Guion St, in 2016, survey maps showed a 100-foot easement around the NCRR tracks that run beside the property. Though the easement line came right up to the edge of his building, Howland said he didn’t foresee any future problem.

“When I bought it, I thought ‘Okay, if they get messy with me at least I can get to the loading dock and get out the door so it’s no biggie,’” he said. 

That assumption changed on March 14, when Howland received a notice from NCRR stating that previous surveys were incorrect, and that a new 2017 study had identified a wider 200-foot easement. Unfortunately for Howland, the new easement line runs directly through the Shop Class. 

The widened boundary extends behind Howland’s building to encompass property that, according to Craven County’s GIS map, is owned by former New Bern alderman Dallas Blackiston. It also runs through a lumberyard across the street from Shop Class. 

In a November 20 letter from New Bern attorney Eric J. Remington of Ward and Smith, PA, which is representing NCRR, to Howland’s attorney, Jonathan E. Friesen of Gillespie & Murphy, PA, Remington spells out the terms that Howland is expected to agree to in order to avoid legal action. The letter states that NCRR is willing to enter into a license agreement to allow Howland to continue to use the property as long as he agrees to acknowledge NCRR’s ownership of the 200-foot easement corridor and pays an annual fee of $4,000.

“NCRR appreciates your client’s consideration of the proposed license agreement, and it would prefer to resolve this matter amicably,” the letter states. “But NCRR remains firm in its position regarding the width of the corridor and it is ready to pursue the matter in court, if needed.”

The letter states that the terms of the proposed license agreement need to be finalized by 5 p.m. on Friday, December 1. 

“If the matter has not been amicably resolved by that date, we have been directed to file suit to establish ownership of the 200’ wide corridor,” the letter says.

As off 1 p.m. Friday, Howland said he had not received word from his attorney on any additional legal action taken by NCRR.

When contacted by New Bern Now last Friday with questions regarding NCRR’s action against Howland, Remington replied, “Thank you for your inquiry. Because discussions regarding this dispute are ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment publicly on this matter at this time.”

Though he has heard various theories, Howland said he is unsure why NCRR has chosen to press the issue of the easement boundary. He said the ultimatum has left him with two choices: fight it out in court or give in to the company’s demands.

“I can capitulate to what they’re saying and make this property absolutely worthless, I will not be able to sell it. And on top of that they want a $4,000 fee for me using my land,” Howland said. “And if I don’t agree with them, they’ll basically bring in the bulldozers.”

Howland said neither himself nor his attorney have the resources to litigate the case.

“And that’s what they’re counting on, that they’ll be able to crush me with legal fees,” he commented.

Shop Class offers a unique mix of woodworking and metalworking classes and equipment for both novices and experienced craftspeople. (NBN Photo/Todd Wetherington)

Howland is no stranger to adversity when it comes to the Shop Class. After purchasing the building seven years ago he spent all of 2017 remodeling the interior, including the installation all new electrical, plumbing and heat systems, insulation and roof repairs. 

“When I bought it, it was in horrible shape. It didn’t smell very nice and you could see daylight through the roof in several places,” he said 

Shortly after Howland opened Shop Class for business in 2018, Hurricane Florence forced him to shut down. In 2019 Howland had heart bypass surgery, causing another delay. When he finally got the business going again in 2020, he was soon faced with another emergency in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Howland persevered through it all, however, and has turned his business into a unique, community DIY woodworking shop. Howland and his team of instructors, including Master Woodworker Joe Clay and Operations Manager Scott Canady, teach woodworking and woodturning as well as welding classes for beginners and more advanced students. Participants are required to go through a three-hour, $65 safety class, after which they can rent shop time or get unlimited use of the building and its equipment for $120 a month. 

The shop offers access to a wealth of tools and machinery unavailable anywhere outside of an industrial factory or vocational college. Encompassing both a wood and metal shop, the workspace includes a table saw, router, drill press, lathes, sanders, a bandsaw, plasma cutter, jointer, planer, miter saw and a wall containing with numerous tools. There’s even a skateboard press. The shop is equipped with a state-of-the-art dust collector and safety features as well. 

Howland describes Shop Class as a “quasi-nonprofit.”

“My concept here is to have a really nice shop and get other people to help me pay for it…To this point I have not made any money on this place, and I don’t anticipate really making that much,” he said.

Howland and his staff have worked on numerous projects for local historic restoration efforts and city events. They are currently working on windows for New Bern’s King Solomon Lodge restoration. 

“That’s a pretty big project and I’m doing it pro bono for them,” he said. 

If NCRR is ultimately victorious in a court of law, Howland said the future of Shop Clas will be in doubt. 

“I’d have to make a decision,” he said. “My overall thinking was I’d buy this place, fix it up and when I’m ready to retire, sell it. What I was really getting my money from was the value of the property.”

As a private company that is owned solely by the state, NCRR is exempt from providing some of the information that would be required of a publicly traded company, including details about its directors and executive officers as well as its lobbying activities, Howland noted. 

“My thing is, number one I want them to go away,” he said. “But there’s some other people besides me that believe we need to dissolve this. The NCDOT could take it over and run it. We don’t need a private corporation that’s the last bastion of robber barons.”

By Todd Wetherington, co-editor. Send an email with questions or comments.