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S.C. Supreme Court Affirms Limitation on Developer’s Rights

A family-run bed and breakfast inn and wedding venue on property located along the Great Pee Dee River in Georgetown County sounded like a treat for the community to Levon and Pamela Dunn. Unfortunately for them, their neighbors did not agree (in fact, they felt tricked) and a legal battle began in 2005 between the Dunns and their neighbors culminating in a S.C. Supreme Court case published on October 22, 2014.

AJC Holdings, LLC. v. Dunnpumpkin arose when Levon and Pamela Dunn began renovating an existing guest house on two residential lots subject to restrictive covenants that prohibited commercial use of the property absent the developer’s approval. The neighbors complained, involved the planning and zoning commission, the hazard insurance agent and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and finally brought this action seeking an injunction. The Dunns contacted the developer, Helen Sasser, and obtained a written assignment of any developer’s rights. The Dunns then executed a document asserting that, as the assignee of the developer’s rights, they consented to the commercial use of the property.

Unfortunately for the Dunns, Helen Sasser had sold her last remaining lots in the subdivision in 1991 and retained no remaining rights in the subdivision except, as the Dunns argued, the right to amend the restrictions.

The circuit court found that Sasser no longer retained any developer’s rights to assign to the Dunns, and the Dunns’ execution of the written consent to commercial use was meaningless. The Dunns appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, citing Queen’s Grant II Horizontal Property Regime v. Greenwood Development Corp.,* which set out five conditions that must be met for a developer to reserve the right to amend or impose new restrictive covenants running with the land:

1. the right to amend the covenants or impose new covenants must be unambiguously set forth in the original document;
2. the developer, at the time of the amended or new covenants, must possess a sufficient property interest in the development;
3. the developer must strictly comply with the amendment procedure set forth in the covenants;
4. the developer must provide notice of amended or new covenants in strict accordance with the original document and as otherwise provided by law; and
5. the amended or new covenants must not be unreasonable, indefinite, or contravene public policy.

The Dunns argued that they met the second requirement because, despite the fact that Sasser had sold all the lots, she had reserved developer’s rights. The Court of Appeals said this argument was circular: the developer had a sufficient property interest in the development to allow her to reserve developer’s rights because she reserved to herself developer’s rights.

The Supreme Court agreed, citing, in addition to Queen’s Grant II, McLeod v. Baptiste, * (“[A] grantor lacks standing to enforce a covenant against a remote grantee when the grantor no longer owns real property which would benefit from the enforcement of that restrictive covenant.”

spooky houseThe Court also cited a Georgia case* reasoning that so long as the developer owns an interest in the subdivision, that economic interest will tend to cause the developer to exercise rights in a manner which takes into account potential harm to the other lots. In other words, there is an economic restraint against arbitrary waiver that is lacking after the developer is divested of all interest in the subdivision.

Finally, our Court cited a New York case* holding that a right reserved in a developer cannot be exercised after the developer has conveyed all of the land because that action may be used to ruin the property of others who have bought and improved their land on the faith of the restrictions.

This case is instructive for all South Carolina practitioners whose clients seek to amend or waive restrictive covenants. Always consider whether the amendment would be objectionable to neighbors and what actions those neighbors may take! And definitely follow the guidelines set out in Queen’s Grant II.

*Contact me if you would like the citations.

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