Long-forgotten Duke Energy easement threatens Johnston neighborhood

March 21, 2019

Nearly two dozen homeowners in the Buffalo Creek subdivision near Zebulon are in the fight of their lives for their homes.

In 2017, homeowners started receiving letters from Duke Energy informing them their homes, or part of their land, are on property owned by the utility company. Carolina Power & Light, which later merged into Duke, acquired a 180-foot-wide easement in 1987 for future power lines. However, those easements were omitted from plat maps when the neighborhood was built.

“Our homes never should have been built. There should have never been certificates of occupancy, and none of us would be in this position,” said Carly Williams, one of the frustrated homeowners.

Williams said she wonders why surveyors, Fred Smith Co., which built the homes off Thanksgiving Fire Road in Johnston County, and Duke, which supplies power to the neighborhood, all lost track of the easements.

“They should have known when they hooked up the power that it was their area and their asset,” she said.

Duke’s letters informed homeowners about the land record mix-up and promised to work with homeowners to achieve an “amicable” solution. To date, however, no offers have been made to buy out homeowners, who said any offer will not reflect the true market value for homes they’ve lived in for decades.

“It’s well over 20 years, and you’re now trying to tell us you’re going to come in and destroy our homes and destroy our lives? That’s ridiculous,” homeowner Kim Davis said.

Nikki Thomson said she feels that she and her neighbors are stuck: “They can’t sell. They can’t get out.”

The homeowners that met with WRAL Investigates say they all went through the proper closing steps with real estate agents and lawyers, but there were no red flags.

Craig Barnhart said he took an extra step in his closing process, but it didn’t help: “I even paid for a second survey. I’m not sure why because it didn’t show anything.”

The homeowners are now suing Duke, claiming the company abandoned the right to the easement after providing electricity for two decades with no mention of the problem. They’re also suing surveyors and Fred Smith Co. for negligence.

WRAL Investigates reached out to Duke, which would not comment on the pending litigation. But spokeswoman Meredith Archie said, “We appreciate the understanding and continued patience of property owners as we work to resolve the existing encroachment issue.”

Builder Fred Smith Jr. also provided a statement to WRAL Investigates, saying the company acted appropriately and legally when developing Buffalo Creek.

″[O]ur companies relied upon title counsel and surveyors to identify and show easements within the chain of title during development,” the statement reads.

Smith said the recent developments caught the company off guard: “Like the homeowners of Buffalo Creek, we were surprised to learn about Duke Energy’s plans to place a transmission line through the middle of the subdivision. We hope Duke Energy will address the homeowners’ concerns appropriately.”

Whether it’s decided through negotiations or in the court, homeowners said they just want the nightmare to end.

“The bottom line is we’re frustrated, we’re tired, we’re angry, and we’re disappointed,” homeowner Norman Davis said. “I’m not trying to blame anyone. I know we all make mistakes. Someone just needs to say, ‘Yeah, we messed up.’”