Court of Appeals decides Hilton Head easement case

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Real estate cases involving property in Hilton Head Island are almost always interesting, and this one* is no exception. I’m sure my friend, Dick Unger, will be discussing it fully in his upcoming revised treatise on easements for the South Carolina Bar. In the meantime, here’s enough of a description to get this case on your radar.

The case involves a welcome center, a gas station and a shopping complex on Palmetto Bay Road near Sea Pines Circle. Enmark owns the gas station which is adjacent to the welcome center. The shopping complex is located behind the gas station and adjacent to the welcome center. The roadway in question covers a portion of the welcome center property and connects the station to the parking lot on the shopping center property.

The roadway initially forked around a small vegetative island located on the shopping center property and had two connections to the parking lot. The shopping center removed the island and placed a trash dumpster in its place. (That doesn’t sound like something that would have been well received in Hilton Head!) The station’s customers use the roadway as an alternative entrance and exit for the station, and the general public uses it to bypass Sea Pines Circle and access the shopping center.

The case outlines the chains of title for the welcome center and gas station properties. When a dispute about the roadway arose, the property owners entered into a tolling agreement in mid-2013, in which they agreed the owner of the welcome center would file a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment to determine each party’s rights as to the roadway.

The welcome center owner then involved the Town of Hilton Head, which wrote a letter stating the roadway violated Hilton Head’s Land Management Ordinances. The town ordered the road to be removed and replaced with a vegetative buffer.  The gas station owner informed the Hilton Head official about the existence of the tolling agreement and of the importance of the roadway to its business and the public. The town stated that its letter was premature and subsequently decided the roadway was grandfathered into the Land Management Ordinances.

The welcome center owner filed a complaint in August of 2013 seeking an order that the gas station owner had neither an express nor a prescriptive easement. The Master-In-Equity found the existence of a prescriptive easement, and this appeal followed.

The Court of Appeals first eliminated the involvement of the town as a determinative factor in its decision, holding that the 2013 letter was not a final decision.

The Court next outlined the elements of a prescriptive easement: (1) continued and uninterrupted use or enjoyment of the right for a period of twenty years; (2) the identity of the thing enjoyed; and (3) the use or enjoyment which is either adverse or under claim of right.

Citing an earlier case, the Court of Appeals said our Supreme Court had clarified the third element, holding “adverse” and “claim of right” are in effect the same thing. The Supreme Court had simplified the elements stating the claimant must identify the thing enjoyed and show his use has been open, notorious, continuous, uninterrupted, and contrary to the burdened property owner’s rights for a period of twenty years.

The welcome center owner argued that the identity of the thing enjoyed was not established because the roadway is an “easement to nowhere”, not terminating on a public road. The Court held that termination on a public road was not required.

Continuous use was established through tacking the periods of use by prior owners in the gas station’s chain of title. The welcome center argued the use was interrupted by three threatening letters (dated 1994, 2008 and 2012, respectively), plus the placement by the shopping center of the garbage bin. The Court held that the letters were too late to interrupt the required twenty-year period, and the placement of the garbage bin was irrelevant because it was not placed by the owner of the burdened estate.

The owner of the welcome center raised multiple arguments as to the lack of adverse use, but it conceded in its post-trial brief that the existence of the easement would not be presumed “only if the use of the (roadway) during the entire prescriptive period was uninterrupted”, an issue upon which the Court had previously ruled.

I give you this case as an interesting discussion of prescriptive easement law in South Carolina and wait with you to hear Dick Unger’s words of wisdom!

 

*Carolina Center Building Corp. v. Enmark Stations, Inc., South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5804 (February 10, 2021).

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