Taking grandma’s house

Fight for fairness
Porch swing with red bike leaning on porch in the background.

Stock Photo to Protect Client Identity

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rnorwoodIt wasn’t too long ago that a professional musician named Ron Norwood had to say goodbye. It was a hard goodbye. He hasn’t written a song about it, but he might one day.

“My grandma’s house in Durham,” he said. “The state was taking it. I had to let it go.”

The house was “back in the boondocks,” Ron said, off Carr Road. The NCDOT was finally doing some serious highway work near the old neighborhood, and under eminent domain, they were buying up property in the way.

“The state had been talking about doing something out there for fifty years, seemed like,” Ron said. “I can remember my grandmother serving lemonade out on the porch to the surveyors working in the boiling sun…in the ’60s, I think.”

Built by hand

But it was real now. Condemnation of the property had arrived. Ron’s grandfather had built the 4,000 square foot, hardwood floor house – on a one-acre lot – by hand. Ernest Norwood worked at a lumber yard and a brick company. He knew what he was doing.

Five bedrooms. The place Ernest and his wife, Dorothy, would retire to. They wanted a place to rest and have the family come year after year to visit.

Then, tragedy struck. Seven months after the house was finished, Ernest collapsed and died of a heart attack. Dorothy would stay there, though…on her own. She would live at the house for about 40 more years. Dorothy was 95 when she passed.

During some of those years, her grandson, Ron, and his older brother, Tony, would visit every summer from Philadelphia, where their parents had moved to find work. The two boys would take the train from Philly down to see their grandmother, and to play in the woods – on the country land – from dawn ’til dusk.

“I sure remember that apple pie she made from the apple trees in the backyard,” Ron said. “I can taste it right now. I remember everything. The foliage and landscaping a relative did. It was amazing. And wow, but I loved that incredible rose bush in the front. That thing bloomed like you wouldn’t believe. Grandmom made sure of that.”

Changing hands

Dorothy left the house to her grandson in her will. Ron then planned to retire there himself, in just a few years. Ron was still traveling a lot, playing his guitar with various acts and on his own. He’s made a living doing what he loves.

Eventually though, Ron was hoping he’d be able to play for his loved ones out on the porch at “Grandma’s house” on summer nights.

The State Comes Calling

So many reasons, then, that it was so difficult when the letter came from the state three or so years ago, telling Ron that yes, it was happening. The state was claiming the house and the land. They’d make an offer, and before long they’d own it. Tear the place down.

“That night was terrible, let me tell you,” Ron said. “I woke up at three in the morning, yelling. Just yelling. It was unbelievable to me.”

Ron thought he’d be able to negotiate the best price without any help. He didn’t want to have a fight; he just wanted the state to be fair. He thought he could handle it just fine.

“But when I came down from Philly and went to the community meetings, honestly, it was like they were talking a foreign language. Speaking Chinese to a man who doesn’t know Chinese. I saw charts and drawings everywhere. I was in over my head. It scared the daylights out of me.”

Seeking Legal Help

Almost dizzy on his way out the door from a meeting one night, Ron saw an antique wood table in the back of the room.

“I went to look at the table, and saw these brochures sitting there. They were from the NC Eminent Domain law firm. You guys. I saw that some of your lawyers had once worked for the state. I figured you all probably could help me, if anyone could, because you knew how things worked.”

Ron called attorney Stan Abrams, and soon found himself in a conference room talking with him about eminent domain.

“I’ll tell you right now,” Ron said. “Stan shook my hand and looked me in the eye. I knew right away he was human. He was sincere. He was professional. All of that comes out immediately.”

He went on. “Stan said, ‘Ron, we’re going to go to bat for you, and we’re going to do the very best we can.’ And I knew he would.”

Ron said he took a deep breath. Knew he could rest easier.

Later, Stan asked him what kind of records he had, if any, that his grandfather may have kept while he was building Grandma’s house.

“I had a bag with every receipt my grandfather had for every piece of material he’d bought, from back in 1958,” Ron said. “I copied them all and sent them down to Stan.”

Negotiating With Trust

When it came time to negotiate with the state, NC Eminent Domain Law Firm attorney Jason Campbell took over.

“I remember,” Ron said, “that Jason just told me, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen, and here’s how it will happen. I’m going to tell you everything you need to know, so you can make good decisions.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”

Ron said he never had a doubt that NC Eminent Domain Law Firm attorneys Jason Campbell and Stan Abrams would do whatever they could, and it would be to his benefit.

“Never questioned that,” he said.

What’s Right, What’s Fair

In the end, the firm was able to secure a fair offer for the country house Ron’s grandfather built, and his grandmother lived in, and he inherited. It was a significant increase over what the state had originally offered.

“I felt good about that, and I felt thankful,” Ron said. “But you know, no amount of money can pay for those memories, or for the smell of that grass or the feel of the dirt on that property. It was ours. But we got the best we could get – what we thought we deserved – and there’s honor in that.”

The Rose Bush

There’s honor, too, in the one part of the beautiful landscape that Ron took with him back to Philadelphia when he said goodbye to the house that’s meant so much.

“I couldn’t leave the rose bush,” he said. “I just couldn’t. It took a long time, but I dug it up one evening. Got it out and took it back with me to my house up north.”

And in early April of this year, Ron re-planted that rose bush at the place he calls home now. Family history stands there with him. The beauty of the old place in Durham, all the memories. Grandma’s place.

“The rose bush holds on to everything for me,” Ron said. “The place isn’t all gone, is it? Not all gone.”

That sounds as if it might make a great name for a song. Not all gone.

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