Redevelopment of golf courses might be possible in South Carolina

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In April, this blog discussed the redevelopment of two Horry County golf courses. The North and South courses at Deer Track Golf Resort in Deerfield Plantation have been closed for more than ten years and are finally being redeveloped as residential lots. Adjacent lot owners waged class actions in Horry County seeking to have the use of the properties in question restricted to golf courses or open spaces. While these battles were being waged in court, nature attempted to reclaim the properties. One property owner testified that his views changed from overlooking a manicured golf course to overlooking a “sea of weeds”.

Similar battles have been successful in other parts of the country. The cases are fact intensive and turn on the law of implied easements, which, of course, varies widely from state to state. Plats showing golf courses may provide rights in adjacent lot owners, depending on the recorded documents, the sales program and the law of implied easements in the location.

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I wanted to invite those interested in this area of the law to take a look at an article published in June by www.citylab.com. The article, written by Nolan Gray, is entitled “Dead Golf Courses Are the New NIMBY Battlefield”. In the interest of full disclosure, I had to Google NIMBY. This acronym stands for “not in my back yard”.

The article states that golf is dying, according to many experts. One study cited in Citylab’s article found that the number of regular golfers fell from 30 to 20.9 million between 2002 and 2016. The thinking is that the fall of Tiger Woods may have led to much of this gloom and doom around golfing. But Mr. Gray believes that the bigger story involves the sport’s aging demographics and the fact that millennials are not interested in the expensive, slow sport that provides few health benefits.

Golf courses and golf clubs across the country are closing, leaving the land to be redeveloped. Mr. Gray’s article states that the average 18-hole golf course sits on 150 acres, property that could host around 600 new single-family detached homes. Add to this mix the fact that many golf communities were built in areas with good schools and work opportunities. These properties are, therefore, particularly valuable in areas where housing inventory is a challenge.

So, what prohibits the development of these properties into residential subdivisions? Zoning is one of the challenges. Many golf courses are zoned for commercial uses to accommodate clubhouses, restaurants, pro shops and bars. But the main stumbling block, according to Mr. Gray, is the NIMBY attitude of neighbors. Residents near golf courses prefer that the properties be turned into parks, open spaces and natural preserves.

Let’s look, for example, at the Deerfield Plantation cases. First, the facts: The golf courses and surrounding residential subdivisions were originally developed beginning in the late 1970’s. The plats contained notes to the effect that the streets were dedicated for public use but the golf courses were to be maintained privately and were specifically not dedicated to public use.

The covenants gave the lot owners no rights, property, contractual, or otherwise, in the golf courses. A Property Report that was delivered to all prospective lot purchasers described the costs of golf memberships, which were not included in lot prices, and stated that to be allowed to use the golf courses, members would be required to pay initial dues and annual dues and fees. The real estate agents made it clear during the sales program that the mere purchase of a lot did not give a lot owner any right or entitlement to use the golf courses. The deeds of the lots did not convey any easements or other interests in the golf courses.

One plaintiff, who was also a real estate agent, testified that he was never told the golf courses would operate in perpetuity and that the real estate agents never told other potential purchasers that the golf courses would always exist on the properties.

What caused the golf courses to fail? When the golf courses opened, there were 30 – 40 golf courses in the Myrtle Beach area. By the time the golf courses closed, there were nearly 125 courses. Property taxes in the golf courses increased from $7,800 per year to $90,000 per year.  And then the economy tanked. These three factors have occurred across the country to varying extents.

Now, let’s look at South Carolina law. In one of the cases, a 38-page Order of Thomas J. Wills, Special Referee, examined the law of implied easements in South Carolina. I’m summarizing and eliminating the citations for this brief discussion.

The Order states that implied easements are not favored by the courts in South Carolina and must be strictly construed. The intent of the parties controls the existence and scope of implied easements, and the best evidence of that intent is the recorded documents. While case law in South Carolina is clear that lot owners in subdivisions hold easements in streets shown on plats by which their lots are sold, the order states that this rule does not extend beyond access, which is necessary and expected for residential purposes. Finally, the order states that no implied easements in views, breezes, light or air exist in this state.

Finally, these golf courses will be redeveloped into new residential subdivisions. Will we see more of this litigation in South Carolina?  Probably. While the law in South Carolina appears generally to favor redevelopment in these cases, there is no doubt that the facts in some of the situations may give rise to implied easements in adjacent lot owners, even in the face of our law. As long as we have NIMBY attitudes of those who live near defunct golf courses, we will continue to see litigation in this area.

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Tax titles are precarious in SC

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New Court of Appeals case demonstrates this fact again

A South Carolina Court of Appeals case* decided on June 20 demonstrates once again how precarious real estate titles coming through tax sales can be in South Carolina.

The unfortunate facts are not unusual. Bessie and Willis Thompson owned a residence in Bamberg County. They died in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The residence was devised to three grandchildren, one of whom, Corretta McMillan, was involved in this case through the appeal. The estates of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson were not probated, leaving the Thompsons as the title holders of record.

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Corretta McMillan paid the 2005 property taxes, but she did not notify Bamberg County of the deaths of her grandparents, nor did she provide a substitute address for tax notices. The 2006 property taxes were not paid, resulting in a letter to the residence from Bamberg County in the spring of 2007. In May of 2007, Bamberg County sent a second notice to the residence via certified mail. The letter was returned undelivered with the receipt marked “Deceased” above the names of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson. McMillan never received the notices, and she rented to house to Bernard Hallman in the summer of 2007.

Bamberg County referred the property to the Delinquent Tax Office which held a tax sale in November of 2007. The tax office submitted a minimum bid on behalf of the Forfeited Land Commission (FLC), a commission within each county which exists to bid on real properties not otherwise sold at tax sales. Following this tax sale, however, Ralph Johnson contacted the tax office with an offer to purchase several dozen tax sale properties. The tax office assigned to Johnson the bids it had submitted on behalf of the FLC, allowing Johnson to purchase 39 tax sale properties, including the residence involved in this appeal.

In January of 2009, McMillan paid a portion of the outstanding property taxes. Bamberg County sent her a notice acknowledging receipt of her payment and informing her that there were still delinquent taxes due. No mention was made of the tax sale.

Johnson acquired a deed to the property in February of 2009, at which time he learned the property was still occupied by Hallman. Johnson asked Hallman to move out and later filed an eviction action. Hallman notified his landlord, McMillan, of the eviction action.

The magistrate held Johnson’s eviction proceeding in abeyance when the FLC filed suit against Johnson alleging the tax office had inappropriately assigned its bids to Johnson without FLC’s authority. This suit also alleged the tax sales had not been conducted in compliance with the “rigid statutory structure.” Johnson answered, cross claimed and counterclaimed. One of his theories was the two-year statute of limitations on challenging tax sales set out in South Carolina Code §12-51-160.

During a November 2013 hearing, McMillan appeared and informed the court that she was an heir of the Thompsons. The FLC abandoned its suit and the circuit court dismissed the FLC’s complaint and Johnson’s counterclaims with prejudice. The circuit court then entered a default judgment in favor of Johnson on his cross claims to quiet title.

On April 8, 2014, McMillan filed an answer and counterclaim to Johnson’s quiet tile action. Johnson maintained McMillan could not contest the validity of the tax sale because the claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations. At trial, there was no evidence that the property was properly posted with a notice of the tax sale once the second notice was returned marked “Deceased”.  The circuit court granted the quiet title demand.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, discussing the two-year statute of limitations and the technicalities required for a successful tax sale. The Court sited earlier cases which held that defects in quiet title actions are jurisdictional and may prevent the statute from running. Other cases have suggested that even in the absence of strict compliance, the statute of limitations will begin to run when the purchaser at the tax sale takes possession of the property.

In this case, the purchaser never took possession because he was unable to evict the tenant. That fact, and the fact that the property was not properly posted with a notice of the sale, led to the Court’s conclusion that the two-year statute did not run.

The moral to this story is simple: always discuss tax sale titles with your friendly and smart title insurance company underwriter. They generally keep up with these cases, no matter how tedious. **

*The Forfeited Land Commission of Bamberg County v. Beard, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5570 (June 20, 2018).

**Please see footnote 5 in this case. It’s rare that a footnote in an appellate case can make a lawyer cry (unless the lawyer lost the case), but this footnote summarized the exemplary career of the late Tanya Gee, who died in 2016. This case would have been her first case as a temporary justice on the Court of Appeals. After her death, the appellate process had to begin again. Rest in peace, Justice Gee!

SCOTUS refuses to review SC Episcopal property dispute

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It has been close to a year that I wrote in this blog that I was thankful to be a real estate lawyer as I attempted to decipher the South Carolina Supreme Court’s 77-page opinion involving the Episcopal Church published on August 2, 2017*. I continue to be thankful that my mission is limited to the real estate issues in this difficult case because the United States Supreme Court refused to review that ruling on June 11. We are left with the difficult opinion issued in Columbia, and church officials and members from both sides of the dispute are left to sort out their on-going concerns in light of that ruling.

I don’t have to solve the mystery of the rights of gays in churches. I don’t have to ascertain whether the “liberal mainline” members or the “ultra-conservative breakaway” members make up the real Episcopal Church.  I don’t have to delve into the depths of neutral principles of law vs. ecclesiastical law. I don’t have to figure out who will own the name “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”

The real estate issues are sufficiently thorny to occupy our collective real estate lawyer brains, but I am attempting here to boil those issues down to a manageable few words for all of us.

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News articles refer to the properties as being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. The historic value of the properties, including St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s of Charleston, is also quite significant.  I assume a petition for rehearing will ensue as well as an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Nothing is settled at this point. Let’s not try to insure these titles anytime soon.

The controversy began more than five years ago when 39 local parishes in eastern South Carolina left the Episcopal Church over, among other issues, the rights of gays in church. Since then, the two sides have been involved in a battle over the church’s name, leadership and real estate.

Interestingly, prior to the ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court, the national church had offered a settlement to the breakaway parishes that would have allowed them to retain their properties if they gave up the name and leadership issues. That settlement offer was apparently summarily rejected.

South Carolina’s ruling upheld the Episcopal Church’s position that it is a hierarchal church rather than a congregational church in which the vote of church membership can determine the fate of real property. It also orders the breakaway group to return 29 properties to the national church. Seven parishes may maintain their independence.

The position of the properties turns on whether the local parishes agreed to be bound by the “Dennis Canon” which was enacted in 1979 and provided, in effect, that real property of a parish is held in trust for the national church and the local Diocese, subject to the power of the local parish over the property, so long as the parish remains a part of the national church and Diocese. No evidence was found in the records of the seven parishes that those parishes ever agreed to be bound by the Dennis Canon. The other 29 properties were the subject of documentation to the effect that the local churches intended to hold the property in trust for the denomination. The opinion did not uphold the Dennis Canon in and of itself. Explicit recognition of the Canon was required.

That, in short, was the result of the 77-page opinion on real estate lawyers. We will need watch for a potential settlement. In the meantime, we will sit tight and not involve ourselves in sales and mortgages of these properties.

Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I am always thankful to be a real estate lawyer!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27731, August 2, 2017.

New Cybersecurity law in SC affects insurance companies and agents

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The effective date is January 1, 2019

South Carolina’s legislature passed a cybersecurity bill on April 18, and Governor Henry McMaster signed it into law on May 3. The new law, which requires that insurers and producers (agents) must establish “strong and aggressive” programs to protect companies and consumers from data breaches, goes into effect at the beginning of next year. The law is called South Carolina Data Security Act, and it will be found at §38-99-10 et seq. of the South Carolina Code.

Insurers and agents must develop, implement and maintain a comprehensive written information security program based on internal risk assessments which contain administrative, technical and physical safeguards for the protection of nonpublic information.

New rules were created that include overseeing third party providers, investigating data breaches and notifying regulators, including the South Carolina Department of Insurance, of cybersecurity events.

security unlocked data breach

Notification is required to the DOI within 72 hours after determining a cybersecurity event has occurred. Each incident must also be investigated to determine the scope of the breach, the nonpublic information compromised, and the measures to restore the security of the information.

Safe guarding individual insurance policy holders’ personal information is a high priority in the wake of several major insurance companies’ data breaches. Insurers and agents are required to mitigate the potential damage caused by date breaches.

South Carolina was the first state to pass this measure based on the model law developed by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners Cybersecurity Working Group. South Carolina Insurance Director Raymond Farmer chaired the group.

How will this new law be applied to real estate lawyers who are also title insurance agents?  My guess is that the title insurance companies, which probably already have complying programs in place, will provide guidance to their agents between now and the end of the year. Stay tuned!

Unpublished easement case takes a common sense approach

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Access to Lake Murray must have been intended

Although an unpublished opinion has no precedential value, an easement case* decided by the Court of Appeals on May 16 takes an interesting, common sense approach that may be useful for our analysis of future easement issues.

Hamilton Duncan and Ray and Elizabeth Drasites are owners of two adjacent properties located on an inland cove of Lake Murray. Mr. and Mrs. Drasites’ property abuts the water and is situated between the lake and Mr. Duncan’s one acre parcel. Both parties acquired their respective properties with reference to an easement granting Duncan a right of access over the Drasites’ property to a terminus at the 360 foot contour of Lake Murray.

Lake Murray

Testimony before the Master-in-Equity established that the 360 foot contour is Lake Murray’s high water mark and represents the boundary between the lake, managed by South Carolina Electric and Gas Company (SCE&G), and privately-owned property.

Master-in-Equity Strickland ordered that Duncan has an easement for the purpose of accessing Lake Murray, that Duncan can use the easement to launch small watercraft, and that the Drasites are enjoined from interfering with the easement. The Drasites acknowledged the existence of an easement for a road running generally along the southeastern boundary of their property, but they argued that the length of the easement did not extend to the lake.

The Court of Appeals indicated that common sense and good faith are the leading touchstones in determining the extent of an easement and that consideration must be given to what is essentially necessary to the enjoyment of the dominant property. The Court stated it did not believe it was the grantor’s intent to give the dominant estate a right of access just shy of the lake depending on whether the water level is high or low or for a dirt road traversing the southern boundary of the Drasites’ property but just short of the lake.

The Court held that Duncan is responsible for bearing the cost of maintaining the easement, and any improvements must be subject to the approval of SCE&G. And the Court reminded Duncan that an easement is limited to a use that is reasonably necessary and convenient and as little burdensome to the servient estate as possible. Stated another way, the Court held that the owner of an easement has all the rights incident or necessary to its property enjoyment, but nothing more.

I always prefer a common sense approach. There was apparently little evidence of the extent of the easement since no survey was prepared contemporaneously with it. With the exception of the plats prepared for litigation, all plats in the parties’ chains of title show the easement terminating at the waters of Lake Murray. The Drasites based their argument on a plat outside the chains of title which depicted the road short of the lake. The Court was not impressed with that evidence.

 

* Duncan v. Drasites, Unpublished Opinion No. 2018-UP-211 (May 16,2018)

 

Family squabble leads to promissory estoppel claim

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SC Court of Appeals doesn’t buy it

The facts of a recent Court of Appeals* case involve a dispute between brothers who immigrated from India. Sam Patel moved first, in 1979, and settled in Chicago. Sam’s extended family followed and lived with Sam and his wife. In 1989, Sam moved to Lynchburg, South Carolina, after he purchased a store on Willow Grove Road.

Sam’s family, along with his parents and his younger brother, Kim, followed. The family worked in and lived on the store property. The business grew, and the brothers acquired a store in Sumter. Kim Patel operated the store in Sumter, while Sam Patel continued to operate the store in Lynchburg. Over the years, Sam helped Kim financially.

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By 2010, Sam owned three parcels in Lynchburg and operated a liquor store, a grill and a gas station. Sam, himself, faced financial difficulties at this time, and his properties were foreclosed on by First Citizens. At Sam’s request, Kim purchased the properties through the foreclosure in the name of a limited liability company. Sam continued to run businesses on the properties and placed his businesses in the name of another limited liability company.

Sam’s LLC obtained the operating, lottery and alcohol licenses for the properties and made improvements. But Kim’s LLC expended funds for gasoline purchases and property taxes. There was never a lease or written agreement between the brothers or their entities concerning rent and expenses. And when Sam failed to pay rent, Kim’s LLC brought a suit for ejectment and damages. Sam and his LLC counterclaimed, alleging Kim had promised to convey the title to him.

At trial, the brothers gave conflicting accounts of their verbal arrangement. Kim testified that he told Sam he could continue to operate the businesses for six or seven months rent-free so Sam could get back on his feet. After that time frame, Kim expected his brother to pay rent, taxes, insurance and maintenance. Sam testified that Kim purchased the properties in order to convey them back to Sam. Sam intended to repay Kim over three to five years and have title returned to him after repayment.

The special referee’s order stated that Sam owned an equitable interest in the properties and had a right to repurchase them, but that Sam owed Kim approximately $42,000 for expenses.

The Court of Appeals held that Sam’s claim of an equitable interest based on promissory estoppel failed, stating that promissory estoppel is a flexible doctrine that aims to achieve equitable results, but it, like all creatures of equity, has limitations. The court said promissory estoppel is a quasi-contract remedy with four elements:  (1) a promise unambiguous in its terms; (2) reasonable reliance upon the promise; (3) the reliance is expected and foreseeable by the party who makes the promise; and (4) the party to whom the promise is made must sustain injury in reliance on the promise. The court held that Sam’s claim failed on the first two elements.

The testimony of Sam and Kim at trial made it clear, according to the Court, that there was no meeting of the minds as to the terms of the alleged contract. In other words, there was no unambiguous promise to be enforced. And Sam’s reliance was held to be unreasonable in light of the ambiguities of the alleged promise.

The case was remanded to the special referee to conduct the eviction proceeding and to determine rent and expenses between the parties.

 

A&P Enterprises, LLC. v. SP Grocery of Lynchburg, LLC, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5545 (March 28, 2018).

HOA foreclosures are being challenged on multiple levels in SC

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The HOA won in a recent Court of Appeals case

In January, I blogged about a Federal class action lawsuit filed in Charleston seeking to invalidate non-condo foreclosures by owners’ associations. You can read that blog here but the short version is that the suit challenges foreclosures on the grounds that these non-profit corporations don’t have the power to create liens for unpaid assessments prior to obtaining judicial judgments. Condominium associations established through the Horizontal Property Regime Act have statutory authority to create liens, but the power of non-condo projects is created by restrictive covenants. We’ll have to wait and see how that suit turns out, but if the plaintiffs there are successful, foreclosure practice will change drastically in South Carolina.

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Our Court of Appeals decided a case* on April 4th that could have made drastic changes in another way. In fact, Richland County’s Master-in-Equity, Joseph Strickland, stated in his order that “the practice of homeowners’ association foreclosures would effectively be eradicated if (the Plaintiffs’) position came to bear.”

This appeal was handled by the law office of my friend, Brian Boger, a Columbia lawyer and well-known champion of consumers’ rights. The appeal argued that the $3,036 successful bid “shocked the conscience” and violated equitable principles. The parties agreed that the home was valued at $128,000. There was a mortgage balance of $66,004, leaving equity of $61,996. The Hales did not argue that there were irregularities in foreclosure process, but instead argued that the low bid should have encouraged the Master to use his gavel to “do equity”.

Comparing the successful bid to their equity using the “Equity Method”, the Hales argued that the bid amounted to 4.8% of the fair market value of the property. The HOA argued, using the “Debt Method”, that the bid must be added to the senior mortgage balance to judge its sufficiency because the successful bidder would have to pay the senior mortgage to have good title. In this case, using the Debt Method, the bid amounted to 54.94% of the fair market value. The Court of Appeals agreed that the Debt Method was the proper method for considering a senior encumbrance in a foreclosure.

The Court found no South Carolina cases that expressly weighed the two methods of judging a bid, but pointed to prior cases that considered the amount of a senior mortgage in the determination and found a 3.15% bid sufficient. One reason the Court of Appeals prefers the Debt Method is that it will result in “fewer set asides”.  In other words, the Court of Appeals is not interested in upsetting the foreclosure practice applecart at this point.

Justice Lockemy dissented, stating that he thought it improper to give a judicial sale buyer credit for assuming a debt it is not legally required to pay. He said the Court’s decision could create a perverse circumstance where a judicial sale bidder purchases property for a de minimis amount simply to capitalize on rental revenue until the senior lienholder forecloses. The majority called this argument a solution in search of a problem because there was no evidence that the successful bidder in this case was engaged in such a scheme and because the successful bidder must satisfy the mortgage to obtain clear title.

Foreclosure practice in South Carolina remains the same…for now.

* Winrose Homeowners’ Association, Inc. v. Hale, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5549 (April 4, 2018)