“Carolina Crossroads” may sound like a vacation spot

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But it’s “Malfunction Junction”, which is about to get a much-needed rebuild

malfunction junction

Image courtesy of The State

I’ve lived in Columbia since college with the exception of four years in Winnsboro, where my husband and I landed to split the distance between our jobs. The people in Winnsboro were delightful, but we were chastised routinely because our travel and work routines kept us away from home. The town and church ladies were especially bothered that they couldn’t drop in during the week.

A tornado that temporarily separated our growing family caused us to reevaluate our choices and to move jobs and home to one location. After much debate, Columbia won because it wasn’t easy for a female lawyer to find a small-town job in the 1980s. Let me rephrase that. A female lawyer could find a job in a small town if she didn’t need much pay or respect. But that’s a whole “nother” story, as we say in the South. Suffice it to say the city won.

Although schools and housing prices were much more promising in the Irmo area north of Columbia, we decided we didn’t have the patience to handle the commute that ran through the intersection of I-20 and I-26, commonly called “Malfunction Junction”. So I have never battled that disaster area routinely. But any Friday afternoon escape from “Famously Hot” Columbia to the cool of the North Carolina mountains required bravely timing the travel and negotiating the traffic.

I’ve seen friends and co-workers schedule their travel times to downtown Columbia to avoid hitting that area during rush hour. And I’ve seen them justify the commute because of beautiful lakefront homes and great schools. I get it! I just never had the patience for it! I’ve heard tales of the 12-mile commute taking an hour or more. That would require a big investment in audio books for me!

The Department of Transportation plans to alleviate my friends’ pain, but it’s going to take awhile. If you Google “Carolina Crossroads”, the name the DOT has given the project, you will be able to read about the ten-year plan to fix the problem. Yes, I said ten years. Here is a time-line projection.

Why will it take so long?  First, the properties must be acquired. The DOT says it plans to spend $240 million to acquire real estate including gas stations, homes, apartment buildings and a Motel 6. Dirt lawyers, if you handle condemnations as a part of your practice, this may be a time for you to shine!

The new interchange will add lanes to ease merging issues and will connect I-20, I-26 and I-126. The goal is to reduce the number of accidents and the amount of time commuters spend negotiating the area. Apparently 134,000 cars travel through the interchange every day. The $1.5 billion project is being split into five phases.

The first phase includes Colonial Life Boulevard. The second includes Broad River Road. The third will involve the main interchange of the interstate highways and will include St. Andrews Road and Bush River Road.  The fourth phase will include Harbison Boulevard, and the fifth and final phase will involve widening I-26 west of St. Andrews Road.

The DOT says one of the problems with the long-range project is that contractors are reluctant to bid on the massive project. That’s one reason the project was divided into phases. We began to hear rumblings that the project was coming as early as 2015, but the federal government didn’t sign off until spring of 2019.

I can’t wait to hear the stories about how construction will affect the commute. And our vacations may have to avoid the mountains for the next ten years!  But we’re all looking forward to the project’s completion!

State challenges Hobcaw Barony’s claim to North Inlet

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Hobcaw Barony

Photo courtesy of The Post and Courier

This blog recently discussed an interesting lawsuit brewing in Georgetown County involving the property of Hobcaw Barony and adjacent North Inlet. The owner of Hobcaw, the Belle W. Baruch Foundation, is claiming title to 8,000 acres of marsh at North Inlet, a vast marshland that has always been used by the public for recreational purposes. The lawsuit claims title to the property by virtue of a Kings Grant.

Local gossip indicates the Foundation simply intends to clean up title issues and does not intend to preclude the public from enjoying the property. But the complaint reads like a normal quiet title action of marshland property and the locals are nervous. An easement has been suggested to resolve the conflict, but this suggestion has been rebuffed by the Foundation.

The State of South Carolina has now filed responsive pleadings asking for an order declaring that the property is dedicated to public use. The State’s response to the Foundation’s complaint alleges that the Foundation lacks the power to exclude the general public from the property because the public has a right to the use of navigable waters.

The State claims the public is entitled to the marshland through continued use of the property for fishing, shrimping, crabbing and similar activities for generations.

I’ll keep you posted as this issue is litigated.

Padding legal bills leads to suspension of South Carolina lawyer

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red card - suit

The South Carolina Supreme Court meted out discipline to a lawyer in terms of a definite three-year suspension on January 22.* Three straightforward reasons for the suspension are highlighted by the very short opinion:

  1. The lawyer fell behind on his billable hours and falsified his time;
  2. The lawyer was not always truthful with clients regarding their cases in an attempt to cover for his uncompleted work; and
  3. The lawyer falsified expense reports. Specifically, he altered hotel and airline bills to receive reimbursement for trips that were not made and client dinners that did not occur.

The opinion details that the lawyer padded his time by more than 35 hours and his expense reports by more than $5,000.

I don’t know about you, but I find these sums shockingly small. I don’t mean the lawyer should not have been disciplined. The punishment clearly fits the crime in my mind. Rather, it seems to me that putting a license to practice at law at risk for such minor sums is a colossal act of inanity.

The time and effort each of us puts into obtaining the privilege to practice law should encourage all of us to follow the rules. Some of the rules are not intuitive. Some of them are indisputably difficult to understand and remember. But the rules this lawyer broke are the simplest of all and breaking them can be described by one word: dishonesty.

I remember the first time I handled a closing for more than $20 million way back in the 1980s. I joked that I knew then that I would never dip into my trust account. In retrospect, that was a terrible joke. None of us should ever think for a moment that we can “borrow” from our trust accounts, no matter how small or how large the number.

But facing a three-year suspension for $5,000 and 35 billable hours is inconceivable.

Be smart and safe out there, lawyer friends!

 

*In the Matter of Sloan, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27936 (January 22, 2020)

Hobcaw Barony owner claims title to North Inlet

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hobcaw-church

Image from south-carolina-plantations.com

I grew up in Georgetown, SC, and enjoyed visiting the beach with my family on Pawleys Island. Between the City of Georgetown and the beautiful “arrogantly shabby” Pawleys beach lies Hobcaw Barony, a gorgeous stretch of land that was developed as a winter hunting resort by Bernard Baruch.

Bernard Baruch is a name South Carolinians should cherish. Baruch was born in Camden in 1870 and became a Wall Street financier, stock investor, philanthropist, statesman and political consultant. After his success in business, he devoted time advising war-time Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. He was a personal friend of Winston Churchill.

Between 1905 and 1907, Baruch purchased a total of 69,690 acres of the former 18th century Hobcaw Barony, consolidating 69 plantations located on the peninsula known as Waccamaw Neck between the Winyah Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Famous visitors included presidents, royalty and world leaders.

For an interesting and entertaining history of the plantation properties developed by wealthy northerners in Georgetown County for hunting purposes, I highly recommend Columbian David Hodges’ book Sunset Lodge in Georgetown: The Story of a Madam.  Hodges is a frequent visitor to Georgetown who conducted extensive interviews and research about Hazel Weisse, who moved to Georgetown in 1936, when the International Paper Company plant was being built, and established a brothel to entertain the builders. Despite being illegal, the business remained open for thirty-three years until Weisse retired in 1969.  Do yourself a favor, South Carolinians. Read this book.

But I digress.

Hobcaw Barony is a treasure. Baruch’s daughter, Belle, established a foundation to use the property as an educational and research preserve. The property includes 37 historic buildings representing the 18th and 19th century rice growing industry and the 20th century winter hunting resort. Tours of the property are open to the public. My brother, Alec Tuten, is one of the tour guides who will happily talk your ear off given half a chance.

The picturesque property reminds me of George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon but, sadly, little or no funding was established to maintain the buildings, so they are not preserved to the standards of Mount Vernon. The grounds, on the other hand, are beautifully maintained. For example, both Carolina and Clemson have established coastal and marine sciences programs at Hobcaw. Wetlands, forests and coastal ecosystems are studied. The entire property was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. I recommend a visit to this little-known local gem!

An interesting lawsuit is now brewing in Georgetown County involving the property of Hobcaw Barony and adjacent North Inlet. The Baruch Foundation is claiming title to 8,000 acres of marsh at North Inlet, a vast marshland that has always been used by the public for recreational purposes. The lawsuit claims title to the property by virtue of a Kings Grant.

stay tuned

Local gossip indicates the Foundation simply intends to clean up title issues and does not intent to preclude the public from enjoying the property. But the complaint reads like a normal quiet title action of marshland property and the locals are nervous. An easement has been suggested to resolve the conflict, but this suggestion has been rebuffed by the Foundation.

Stay tuned to learn more about what will happen to this slice of God’s country.

Recent HOA foreclosure case leads to new rule in Beaufort County

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Master imposes rule based on Chief Justice Beatty’s concurring opinion

foreclosure notice

This blog recently discussed the remarkable homeowners’ association foreclosure case, Winrose Homeowners’ Association, Inc. v. Hale, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27934 (December 18, 2019.) You can read the earlier blog here.

The case focused on the inadequacy of the foreclosure sales price and the business model of a third party to leverage a nominal debt to secure an exorbitant return from homeowners who fear eviction. I believe the case will require HOA foreclosure attorneys to rethink their approach going forward.

In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Beatty said he would go a step further than the majority opinion and adopt the equity method of determining an adequate sales price for residential property in a foreclosure. The equity method compares the winning bid price to the equity in the property. The alternative debt method compares the total debt on the property to its fair market value.

The majority opinion stated that our courts have not established a bright-line rule for what percentage “shocks the conscience”, but a search of our South Carolina’s jurisprudence reveals that our courts have consistently held a price below ten percent definitely does. In this case, the debt method would have resulted in a ratio of 53.9 percent, while the equity method would have resulted in a ratio of 4.9%.

The new rule of the Beaufort County Master-in-Equity Marvin Dukes focuses on a totally separate issue in the case. The homeowners, who were in default, did not receive a notice of the date and time of the foreclosure sale. Judge Dukes’ office disseminated a message to foreclosure attorneys requiring new wording in foreclosure orders.

The new required wording entitled “Special Default Foreclosure Order and Sale Notice Service Instructions” reads as follows:

That, in addition to all notices to the property owner(s) which are required by the  SCRCP or other law, in a case involving property owner’s SCRPC 55 default, or any other case or circumstances where property owner(s) would not ordinarily receive a copy of the Order of Foreclosure and/or Notice of Sale, the party seeking foreclosure (Foreclosing Party) shall, within 5 (five) days of the execution of this Order cause this Order and Notice of Sale (if available) to be served by US Mail upon said property owner(s).

An affidavit of such service shall be filed with the Clerk of Court expeditiously.

In cases where the Notice of Sale is executed later in time than the Order, service shall be accomplished separately, and shall be sent no later than 5 (five) days from receipt by the Foreclosing Party.”

I suspect additional guidance will be coming from our courts about whether the Winrose case will have broad application in foreclosure cases or be limited to its facts. I’m confident foreclosure attorneys feel they need more information.

Motley Fool: “Zillow Plans to Do to Real Estate What Amazon Did to Retailing”

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Zillow Offers is not available in South Carolina yet, but it may be a matter of time

zillow logo magnified

This blog has promised to keep South Carolina dirt lawyers informed about the growing phenomenon of home “iBuying”. Please take a look at two recent articles from Motley Fool linked here.

One of the articles, entitled “Zillow Plans to Do to Real Estate What Amazon Did to Retailing”, indicates Zillow is aggressively taking on the neighborhood real estate broker. The other article, entitled “Why Zillow Wants to Pay More for Homes” indicates iBuying is a scale game, meaning the number of homeowners who accept Zillow’s offer increases dramatically with relatively small increases in price.

Zillow has been planning for this game for years. It already has a massive amount of traffic on its site and has accumulated an enormous amount of data. Go take a quick look at the data Zillow is showing about your own home!

To date, according to Motley Fool, Zillow faces intense competition from Opendoor, which leads the iBuying industry, already serving more than 40,000 customers. But Zillow is working hard to catch up. Opendoor operates in 21 markets. Zillow is in 17 of those markets, four additional markets, and plans to open in five more by the middle of 2020.

In early 2017, Zillow dipped its toe into the process of selling homes by launching a product it called “Instant Offers”. The product was initially tested in Las Vegas and Orlando and was described as a method for homeowners to sell their homes for a discounted price without the traditional complications of repairing, listing, staging and allowing for open houses.

The process started with a homeowner providing basic information via Internet about the home (square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and remodeling information) and uploading photos. The Zillow product then connected the homeowner with investors who buy homes in the area, and, typically, an all-cash offer was made by one or more of the investors. The homeowner paid no fee for the service and was not obligated to accept any offers. Zillow touted the product as a method to alleviate the seller’s stress and to allow the seller to close in a shorter time frame.

Other companies, Opendoor and Offerpad were already operating in this space at the time of the Zillow launch. The launch was called another example of technology disrupting the process of closing real estate transactions.

Real estate agents, of course, met the news with alarm. They said sellers would be suckered into making mistakes that might cost them the education of their kids, vacations or just the ability to sleep better at night because they have more money in their bank accounts. An online petition was initiated, asking the National Association of Realtors to threaten Zillow with being removed from access to listings. The NAR responded that it could not sponsor or encourage such a boycott.

Zillow has always stated publicly that it is not in the business of getting rid of real estate agents. Its executives called Zillow a media company, not a real estate company, and said it sold ads, not real estate. Even the Instant Offers program encouraged sellers to use a realtor even while avoiding the traditional listing and sales process. The question then became the amount of commission the real estate agent would earn for reduced services. When real estate agents initially complained about Instant Offers, Zillow responded that 70% of its revenue came from working with real estate agents.

In early 2018, however, Zillow announced that it would begin buying homes directly from sellers and then turning around and selling them. With this announcement, Zillow began selling ads and houses. Two test markets were announced, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Zillow said that when it buys homes, it will make the necessary repairs and updates and list the homes as quickly as possible. Zillow said local real estate agents would represent Zillow in the transactions. Zillow also announced in a press release that the vast majority of sellers who requested an Instant Offer ended up selling their homes with agents.

So far, nothing is in the works for South Carolina as far as we know, but since it is just next door in Atlanta and Charlotte, how long can it be?

Stay tuned for more news on this topic. Real estate lawyers will need to figure out how to remain in the game whether properties are sold through the Internet or not!

This scam hits home!

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Two fugitives arrested in Murrells Inlet

One smart agent avoided involvement by placing a temporary block on her trust account

Warren and Frances Berkle

WBTW TV News 13 in Myrtle Beach reported on November 22 that two fugitives were arrested in Murrells Inlet. Warren Berkle and Frances Berkle were reported to have been wanted in several states at the time of their arrest.

According to the report, the Berkles had been living under false names and living in a house in Murrells Inlet in connection with a lease to purchase arrangement. Police said they received a call from the homeowner who said she had gone through an eviction process because the two were behind in their payments. She said she was concerned that they were not who they said they were, and were possibly squatting in her house.

WBTW reported that Warren Berkle was stopped by police when he was leaving the neighborhood. He had an expired Florida license plate, no insurance, and a driver’s license that was not in his name. A background check indicated Berkle had a valid license in Maryland and was wanted for extradition. A check on Frances Berkle indicated she was wanted in Florida and Pennsylvania.

Horry County police charged Warren Berkle with forgery and obtaining a signature or property under false pretenses, among other offenses. Frances Berkle was being held without bail as a fugitive.

Warren Berkle had pleaded guilty in 1992 to conspiracy to sell worthless insurance policies and mail fraud, a multimillion-dollar scam. According to an article in the Baltimore Sun, prosecutors said around 800 insurance policies were sold and premiums were collected using false records and without licenses.

Our very astute agent had been contacted by Warren Berkle numerous times, seeking to wire funds into her trust account to accommodate a real estate transaction. Our agent had “such a bad feeling” about Mr. Berkle that she put a block on her trust account just a short time before he tried to wire funds into her account. This occurred after she told him she was not going to be able to work with him.  She said he seemed so insistent and so evasive when she asked questions that she could not trust him to do business with him.

We are so glad her fraud radar was working so well! She paid attention to clues that saved her from a disaster in her trust account!