The Episcopal Church property saga continues

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We have a new circuit court order

This is my third blog about the controversy surrounding the properties of various Episcopal churches in South Carolina. I previously said I am thankful to be a real estate lawyer as I attempt to decipher these issues.

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St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Episcopal Churches, Downtown Charleston, SC 

In August of 2017, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a 77-page opinion in this litigation. We now have a new circuit court order, and I am confident we will hear more at a later date.

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. The South Carolina Supreme Court seemed to indicate that the 29 breakaway churches had to return their properties to the national church under the “Dennis Canon”. But the Supreme Court left open the possibility that the lower court might clarify the position, and clarify Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dickson did.

He wrote that state law, not church law, requires the transfer of real property by deed. He said that no parish expressly acceded to the Dennis Canon. He said, “This is a property case. A decision on property ownership is usually governed by the title to real estate—the deed. In this case, all the plaintiff parishes hold title to their property in fee simple absolute.”

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. Future appeals are almost guaranteed. 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 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, 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.

The South Carolina Supreme Court’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. The new circuit court order begs to differ.

I continue to be thankful that I am 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.

Is it ethical to buy a competitor’s name as a search engine “keyword”?

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Most South Carolina dirt lawyers don’t do much direct advertising, but some make use of Internet keyword advertising. For that reason, I wanted to make sure you noticed the recently issued Ethics Advisory Opinion 20-01, which you can read here.

South Carolina’s Ethics Advisory Committee was asked the following question:  “May a lawyer bid on and use the names of other lawyers and law firms as a part of a competitive keyword advertising strategy?” In other words, it is ethical for a lawyer to pay an internet search engine to insert his or her ads when a searcher types a competitor’s name into the search engine?

In some search engines, the resulting advertisements appear on the right side of the page. In other search engines, they may appear marked as an “ad” or “sponsored” above the organic search results.

The Committee pointed out that competitive keyword advertising is different from search engine optimization (SEO). SEO is the process of increasing the visibility of a web page by users of a search engine and is directed at optimizing unpaid placement organic results. This opinion addresses only keyword advertising.

The Committee followed the lead of New Jersey, Texas and Wisconsin and opined that a lawyer may purchase an internet competitive advertising keyword that is the name of another lawyer or law firm in order to display a “sponsored” website advertisement.

The Committee stressed that lawyers should be mindful to comply with all advertising rules and should use care to ensure that no derogatory or uncivil message is conveyed. The Committee also pointed out that surreptitious redirection from a competitor’s website to a lawyer’s own website via hyperlink is prohibited under our Rules.

What do you think?

SC lawyers connected to Hardwick receive admonitions

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Nat HardwickIn additional fallout from the Nat Hardwick fiasco in Atlanta, the South Carolina Supreme Court has anonymously admonished two bar members for failing to restrict access to South Carolina-based trust accounts containing client funds and failing to ensure proper monthly reconciliations of those accounts*.

This blog has discussed Nat Hardwick, a name familiar to many South Carolina real estate lawyers three times. He was convicted in 2018 of embezzling more than $25 million from his former companies, including his former law firm, Morris Hardwick Schneider. In February of 2019, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His co-conspirator and controller, Asha Maurya, was sentenced to seven years after she cooperated with the government. In May of 2019 Hardwick and Maura were ordered to pay $40 million in restitution.

Nathan E. Hardwick IV, described himself as the face of Morris Hardwick Schneider, an Atlanta residential real estate and foreclosure firm that grew into sixteen states, including South Carolina. The firm once had more than 800 employees and boasted of offices in Charleston, Hilton Head, Columbia and Greenville.

This story hits close to home. My company was one of the victims of the crimes and one of the parties awarded restitution because it funded the firm’s escrow accounts when the losses were discovered.

The prosecutor described an extravagant lifestyle that Hardwick enjoyed at the expense of others. The case was said to be particularly troubling because the illegal activity was orchestrated by a lawyer who swore an oath to uphold the law and represent his clients with integrity. The U.S. Attorney said he hoped the case sent the message that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office will not tolerate this type of white-collar crime.

According to the evidence, from January 2011 through August 2014, Hardwick stole more than $26 million from his law firm’s accounts, including its trust accounts, to pay his personal debts and expenses. The firm’s audited financial statements showed that the firm’s net income from 2011 through 2013 was approximately $10 million. During that time, according to the evidence, Hardwick took more than $20 million from firm accounts.

Asha Maurya, who managed the firm’s accounting operations, reached an agreement last May with the U.S. Attorney’s office and pled guilty. She was expected to testify at the trial, but was unexpectedly not called as a witness. Her lawyer argued at the restitution hearing that she should be liable for only $900,000, the amount she admitted taking from the firm for her own benefit. She had agreed to pay restitution in that amount as a part of her plea bargain.

During the trial, Hardwick did take the stand in his defense and attempted to blame Maurya with the theft. He said that he trusted her to his detriment, that he was entitled to the funds, and that he was unaware that the funds were wired from trust accounts. Hardwick testified for more than a day and explained that he believed Maurya followed proper law firm procedures.

On the stand, Hardwick, described as the consummate salesman, said that he gave his cellphone number to almost everyone. He said he returned calls and messages within a few hours and instructed his employees to do the same. He apparently believed himself to be a master in marketing and customer service and prided himself in focusing on the firm’s expansion strategy. He hoped to expand to all fifty states and make money through a public stock offering.

With his ill-gotten gains, Hardwick bought expensive property, made a $186,000 deposit for a party on a private island, spent $635,000 to take his golfing friends to attend the British Open in 2014, paid off bookies, alimony obligations, and sent more than $5.9 million to various casinos, all according to trial evidence. Hardwick’s activities lead to the loss of his law license and the bankruptcy of his firm.

Hardwick’s former partners, Mark Wittstadt and his brother, Gerald Wittstadt, were each awarded $6 million in restitution, and Art Morris, a retired member of the firm, was awarded $5 million.  All claim damage to their reputations in addition to substantial monetary losses.

These two South Carolina disciplinary cases began in May of 2014 when SunTrust Bank reported it paid three wires that were presented against insufficient funds on one of the firm’s South Carolina IOLTA accounts, leaving the account overdrawn by more than $65,000. Approximately a month later, the bank reported the same account was overdrawn by more than $18,000. The ODC began its investigation about the same time the law firm and my company began investigating the problems in Atlanta.

In South Carolina, the misappropriations occurred primarily through online transfers between firm trust accounts. More than $9 million in transfers in and out of the South Carolina trust accounts occurred during 2014 alone. As a result of the investigations and the subsequent funding of the shortage by my company, no South Carolinians lost funds.

*In re Anonymous Member of the South Carolina Bar, SC Supreme Court case 27937 (May 27, 2020) and In re Anonymous Member of the South Carolina Bar, SC Supreme Court case 27974 (May 27, 2020).

Homeowners’ Association information at your fingertips

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The South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs announced on May 12 the availability of its website containing a wealth of information about homeowners’ associations. Check out the website here.

The site includes frequently asked questions about homeowners’ associations as well as an outline of South Carolina law, contact information of individuals who may be able to help and other resources.

If you represent homeowners’ associations, you probably have this information at your fingertips, but if you are a dirt lawyer who infrequently gets asked questions like, “Can my homeowners’ association impose a fine or file a lien if my renter….

  • Drives a motorcycle into the neighborhood;
  • Hangs towels to dry on the deck;
  • Parks an RV in the driveway;
  • Let’s too many kids use the pool?”

Or, “can I withhold the payment of assessments to my homeowners’ association because it refuses to enforce the prohibition against the chickens my neighbor maintains?”

Or, “I want to paint my front door fuchsia. There are a variety of crazy colors in the neighborhood, but the homeowners’ association guidelines say only a set of approved colors can be used on the exterior of residences. Can they enforce that rule?”

Have you heard questions like this? I certainly have.

Use this website to be able to communicate the answers to your clients in a succinct way, without a lot of legal research.

Court of Appeals case lets us talk dirt

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In the midst of COVID-19, it’s a pleasure to return to a simple discussion of South Carolina dirt law. A case decided by our Court of Appeals last week* surrounds the rights of a condominium project’s owner’s association and a successor developer.

The Edgewater on Broad Creek is a luxury condominium project in Hilton Head developed beginning in 2002. The developer, Broad Creek Edgewater, L.P. planned to develop the project on 23.65 acres in multiple phases. Phase 1, located on 7.64 acres of the property, consisted of a building containing 23 units and a clubhouse. The developer recorded a master deed in Beaufort County on December 31, 2002. In the master deed, the developer reserved the right to incorporate the remaining 16.01 acres into future phases.

The developer failed in the great recession. Its creditors placed Broad Creek Edgewater, L.P. into involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy in May of 2007. The bankruptcy court approved a sale of the additional property to Bear Properties, LLC on May 28, 2008. In addition to the property, the successor developer was given all of the developer’s reserved rights by a quitclaim deed and a bill of sale. Later, Bear Properties assigned all its rights and interests to Appian Visions, LLC, which subsequently assigned its rights and interests to Ephesian Ventures, LLC, the appellant in this case.

While the parties are involved in other litigation, this case involves the attempted construction of a pool and tabby walk by the owner’s association on Phase 1. In March of 2010, the association sought a development permit from the Town of Hilton Head to construct a swimming pool. Following a hearing, the permit was granted and the association began construction. Later, the association began constructing a tabby walk leading from the residential building to the swimming pool. Construction was halted when the Town notified the association that an additional permit was required for the tabby walk.

Ephesian administratively opposed the permit to construct the tabby walk, alleging the master deed required its approval for any construction. The Town rescinded approval for the development permits, stating that it planned to hold the matters in abeyance until the covenant issue was resolved. In 2011, the association brought suit in circuit court seeking a declaratory judgment as to Ephesian’s reserved rights in Phase 1. The association sought an order that it had a right to construct a swimming pool and other amenities on Phase 1, subject only to the land use requirements of the Town, free of any interference by Ephesian.

Although the developer argued that other language created an ambiguity,  language focused on by the Master in Equity and Court of Appeals reads:

“The Declarant expressly reserves the right to improve the aforementioned property by clearing, tree pruning, constructing additional parking and common facilities, including, but not necessarily limited to recreational facilities, draining facilities, lagoons, and the like, pertaining to The Edgewater on Broad Creek Horizontal Property Regime.”

The Master in Equity found, and the Court of Appeals agreed, viewing the facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the successor developer, as is required in considering summary judgment, that the successor developer maintains the right to construct additional amenities in Phase 1, but that this right is not exclusive.

The Court held that the master deed was unambiguous in its reservation of a non-exclusive right in the developer. Litigation between the parties is likely to continue, so we may be able to discuss further developments later.

Talking dirt law is so refreshing!

 

*The Edgewater on Broad Creek Owners Association, Inc. v. Ephesian Ventures, LLC, Opinion 5724, South Carolina Court of Appeals (May 6, 2020).

 

Are RON closings now allowed in South Carolina?

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After a tease from our Supreme Court on Friday, the answer is still “no”

For about 15 minutes on Friday afternoon, May 1, those of us involved in real estate transactions in South Carolina got excited. An Order* from the South Carolina Supreme Court hit our in-boxes. The order was entitled “RE: Participation in Closings of Real Estate Transactions”. We collectively thought South Carolina may have moved into the 21st Century with an authorization for Remote Online Notarization (RON) closings.

Then we read the order.

You can read it here.

By way of preamble, the Court said, “we find that the public health emergency created by COVID-19 requires changes in the usual operation of the Rules of Professional Conduct in terms of the normal functioning of real estate transactions.”

Then the order stated that until August 1, lawyers may “participate in and supervise the closing of a real estate transaction by way of a video conference.”

Fair enough, but I think most South Carolina transactional lawyers believed they could already ethically handle closings via video conference.

Most lawyers definitely believed they can ethically handle “mail away closings.” Were we wrong? Ethics Advisory Opinion 05-16 states that an attorney may ethically conduct real estate closings by mail as long as it is done in a way that: (1) ensures that the attorney is providing competent representation to the client; (2) all aspects of the closing remain under the supervision of an attorney; and (3) the attorney complies with the duty to communicate with the client so as to maintain the attorney-client relationship and be in a position to explain and answer any questions about the documents sent to the client for signature.

To meet this test, according to the EAO, clients must have reasonable means to be in contact with the attorney, by telephone, facsimile, or electronic transmission. The EAO further states that there is no legal requirement that a client attend the closing, but that it must be the client’s decision not to attend the closing.

Ethics Advisory Opinions are, of course, not binding on the South Carolina Supreme Court. But if we rely on the EAO and handle mail-away closings, why can we not also handle closings via video conference, as long as we comply with all of our ethical obligations to properly represent our clients? Technology has changed since 2005!

Setting that issue aside, let’s look at the real problem. The primary obstacle to any closing that is not conducted strictly in the presence of the lawyer is the proper notarization of the recordable documents. According to South Carolina Code §26-1-5, the notary must be in the physical presence of the signatory. For this reason, clients and their lawyers must employ notaries in the client’s location when the client and the lawyer are not in the same location.

Did the May 1 Supreme Court order fix the notary problem at least temporarily? Lawyers who have spent the last four days debating this question via listserv and Facebook have decided that it does not. But did the Court try to help? Maybe.

The Order goes on to say, “necessary persons to a real estate transaction may, under the direction of the supervising attorney, similarly participate in the real estate closing by way of a video conference, provided any necessary person so consents; further, the supervising attorney shall ensure that the attestation of a recordable instrument is accomplished, which may be satisfied by use of real-time audio-visual communication technology, provided the identity of the necessary person is confirmed and a notary attests the signature of any necessary person.” (Emphasis added.)

Giving the Court the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the Justices did not attempt to fix the notary problem but, instead, believed they must address the professional responsibility aspects of the closing process to allow the legislature and governor address the statutory notary issue.

I think I am going to go with that interpretation. Otherwise the Order is useless.

And, I have another concern. Anyone of us who has read and struggled with the facts in the notorious Quicken** case knows that the Court by implication blessed dividing the various aspects of the closing that must be handled by an attorney among many attorneys. But the final sentence of this Order reads, “This order does not suspend any other provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct, and nothing in this order is intended to relieve an attorney of his or her obligation to assume the full professional and direct responsibility for the entire transaction.” (Emphasis added.)

I am so confused!

 

*Order 2020-05-01-01, South Carolina Supreme Court.

**Boone v. Quicken Loans, Inc., 420 S.C. 452, 803 S.E.2d707 (2017).

“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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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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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.