South Carolina Supreme Court protects Captain Sam’s Spit again

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Photo courtesy of the Post and Courier

This blog has discussed “Captain Sam’s Spit” in Kiawah Island three times before. Googling that picturesque name will reveal a treasure trove of news, opinion and case law involving the proposed development of a beautiful and extremely precarious tract of pristine beach property on South Carolina’s coast.

In the latest case*, South Carolina’s Supreme Court refers to the property as one of our state’s only three remaining pristine sandy beaches readily accessible to the general public. The other two are Hunting Island State Park and Huntington Beach State Park. I enjoy the blessing of walking the pristine beach of Huntington Beach State Park on a regular basis, so despite having a career on the periphery of real estate development, I am in favor of maintaining these three state treasures.

The South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Intensive seminar in 2016 and 2018 included field trips to Captain Sam’s Spit, from a distance at least. Professor Josh Eagle of the University of South Carolina School of Law was an excellent tour guide, and how many opportunities do we, as dirt lawyers, have for field trips? The South Carolina Environmental Law Project, located in Pawleys Island, fights these cases. Amy Armstrong, an attorney with that entity, joined our group to explain the environmental and legal issues.

Here are greatly simplified facts. Captain Sam’s Spit encompasses approximately 170 acres of land above the mean high-water mark along the southwestern tip of Kiawah Island and is surrounded by water on three sides. The Spit is over a mile long and 1,600 feet at its widest point, but the focal point of the latest appeal is the land along the narrowest point (the “neck”), which is the isthmus of land connecting it to the remainder of Kiawah Island. The neck occurs at a deep bend in the Kiawah River where it changes direction before eventually emptying into the Atlantic Ocean via Captain Sam’s Inlet.

The neck has been migrating eastward because of the erosive forces of the Kiawah River. The “access corridor”—the buildable land between the critical area and the ocean-side setback line—has narrowed significantly in the past decade to less than thirty feet. Googling this issue will lead to active maps which show the change over time. The width of the neck is significant because the developer needs enough space to build a road. At the base of the neck is Beachwalker Park, operated by the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission. Our fieldtrips were conducted on that Park.

Previously, the administrative law court (ALC), over the initial objection of DHEC, has granted permits for the construction of an extremely large erosion control device in the critical area. In the prior cases (citations omitted), the Supreme Court found the ALC erred. The current appeal stems from the ALC’s third approval of another structure termed “gargantuan” by the Supreme Court—a 2,380-foot steel sheet pile wall designed to combat the erosive forces carving into the sandy river shoreline in order to allow the developer to construct the road to support the development of fifty houses. The Court again reversed and, in effect, shut down the proposed development, at least temporarily. The economic interests of an increased tax base and employment opportunities do not justify eliminating the public’s use of protected tidelands, according to the Court.

After a motion for a re-hearing, the result is the same. The Court reaffirmed its earlier decision without further arguments. We’ve pondered whether each case is the end of the litigation. At this point, we don’t know. Creative developers and lawyers may make further attempts to proceed. Stay tuned.

*South Carolina Coastal Conservative League v. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28031 (June 2, 2021); Re-Filed September 1, 2021.

United States Supreme Court terminates eviction moratorium

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Last Thursday, the United States Supreme Court blocked the CDC’s Covid-related eviction moratorium. The eight-page unsigned 6-3 opinion stated Congress was on notice that a further extension would require new legislation but failed to act in the weeks leading up to the moratorium’s expiration.

Congress has approved nearly $50 billion to assist renters. But estimates indicate many states have disbursed less than 5% if the available funds. More than 7 million renters are in default and subject to eviction. Bureaucratic delays at state and local levels have prevented payments that would assist landlords as well as tenants.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Congress adopted a limited, temporary moratorium on evictions. After the moratorium lapsed last July, the CDC issued a new eviction ban. The ban was extended twice more.

The three liberal justices dissented. The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Breyer said that the public interest is not supported by the court’s second-guessing of the CDC’s judgment in the fact of the spread of COVID-19.

Landlords, real estate companies and trade associations, led by the Alabama Association of Realtors, who challenged the moratorium in this case, argued that the moratorium was not authorized by the law the CDC relied on, the Public Health Service Act of 1944.

That law, the challengers said, authorized quarantines and inspections to stop the spread of disease but did not give the CDC the “the unqualified power to take any measure imaginable to stop the spread of communicable disease – whether eviction moratoria, worship limits, nationwide lockdowns, school closures or vaccine mandates.”

The CDC argued that the moratorium was authorized by the Public Health Service Act of 1944, and that evictions would accelerate the spread of the virus by forcing people to move into closer quarters in shared housing settings with friends or family or congregate in homeless shelters.

Some states and municipalities have issued their own moratoriums, and some judges have indicated they will slow-walk cases as the pandemic intensifies. We will have to watch and see how the termination of the moratorium interacts with the current backlog of cases in South Carolina. Real estate lawyers should be prepared to advise their landlord and tenant clients.

Expect a new look to uniform notes, security instruments and riders

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Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have introduced new uniform notes, security instruments and riders for use immediately, with a deadline for use of January 1, 2023.

Read the press release here and review the new documents here.

The press release touts the benefits of the updated instruments as:

  • Easier to use: Employ more headings and subheadings, shorter paragraphs and sentences, and more clearly defined lists.
  • Provide more clarity: Use plainer language and clarify the explanation of borrower and lender obligations.
  • Reflect industry changes: Account for the changes that the industry has experienced over time and better reflect current industry practices and systems.

Fannie and Freddie are providing an 18-month transition period to allow lenders and their vendors to prepare.

Dirt lawyers should review the new documents to determine whether changes are needed in how closing documents are explained to clients.

What do you think of the new documents?

South Carolina legislature passes “IPEN” electronic notary law

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Don’t know what that is? Neither did I!

South Carolina rarely leads the pack when it comes to innovation, and we certainly didn’t break our streak with the early passage of an electronic notarization law. When we did pass legislation, it undoubtedly wasn’t the RON (remote on-line notary) legislation we need to move into this century. Instead, we have “IPEN” legislation—in person electronic notary, a term I had never heard. Why do we need in person electronic notarization when old fashion notarization is easier?

Doing my best to put a positive spin on this idea, perhaps we have taken baby steps.  Our legislature passed the South Carolina Electronic Notary Public Act on May 13, and Governor McMaster signed it into law on May 18. Our Code was amended to add Chapter 2 to Title 26. Chapter 1 was also amended.

At first blush, the new law does appear to be RON legislation, but buried deep inside is the requirement that signatory be in the notary’s presence. This provision defeats the whole purpose of RON legislation.

The last time I was at an in-person seminar with a roomful of South Carolina real estate lawyers where the topic of RON was discussed (and that seminar was pre-COVID, so it’s been awhile), several lawyers pushed a collective panic button and encouraged the group to lobby against this idea because they believed RON legislation may lead to electronic notaries, not South Carolina lawyers, supervising closings.

The new law specifically addresses that issue. Section 26-1-160 was amended to add Section 5, “Supervision of attorney”, which reads, “Nothing in this act contravenes the South Carolina law that requires a licensed South Carolina attorney to supervise a closing.”  Maybe this is the baby step we need. If lawyers are assured that this provision will be included in RON legislation, they may support that legislation.

Implementing the new law we do have will not be a simple process. Our Secretary of State has significant work to do to get ready to receive applications for registration of electronic notaries. The Secretary of State must create the regulations necessary to establish standards, procedures, practices, forms and records relating to electronic signatures and seals. The regulations must create a process for “unique registration numbers” for each electronic notary. The Secretary of State must approve “vendors of technology.”

Each electronic notary must secure an electronic signature, an electronic journal, a public key certificate and an electronic seal. A form called a “Certificate of Authority for an Electronic Notarial Act” must accompany every electronic notarization. I’m not sure any of this is worth the effort unless it facilitates the implementation of true RON legislation that may be passed in the future. The earliest the new legislation can be considered is January of 2022.

South Carolina dirt lawyers: let’s get behind RON legislation with the provision requiring lawyers to continue to supervise closings. We really don’t have anything to lose, and there is much to gain!

Special thanks to Teri Callen, professor and dirt lawyer extraordinaire,  who helped me figure out what is going on with this legislation!

Will we repeat the real estate crash of 2008?

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Those of us who were in the real estate industry in 2008 when the music stopped in that crazy game of musical chairs we seemed to be playing never want to see that scenario repeated.

It was frightening.

Our incomes plummeted, we had to reduce staffs, great employees left the business (many never to return), real estate lawyers dipped into their retirement and other savings to keep afloat. Real estate lawyers switched to other practice areas. I recently asked a lawyer of retirement age about his plans. His response was that he has no plans to retire because he is still making up the income lost in the crash.

Our business is crazy again.

We hear of houses routinely closing at above listing price in South Carolina. I read a national statistic that suggested more than 40% of houses are going to contract at more than the listing price.  Leading up to 2008, I can vividly remember being amazed that contracts on houses were being sold, sometimes more than once, before a closing could take place. We spent lots of time figuring out whether “flips” were illegal based on their facts. I am a member of a female lawyer page on Facebook, and someone posed the question yesterday asking how other lawyers are closing these multiple-contract transactions.

Why are we here now? Inventory is low. Builders are unable to keep up with the demand created, in part, by the angst of staying at home during COVID leading to appetites for better living space. Many have left cities for areas of less population, and, as always, the sunny South sees a constant influx of those looking for better weather.  Mortgage rates are low. The economy is good. These factors are converging and generally keeping everyone in the industry hopping.

Will the bubble burst again?

I have read everything I can find on what the experts are saying on this topic, and it appears that most economic and housing experts believe we are in much better shape this time around. The main protection appears to be responsible lending. Leading up to 2008, it seemed that anyone who could hold a pen could get a mortgage.  It now appears that loans are being made to more credit-worthy borrowers with decent down payments.

We will see a softening in the market at some point. Mortgage rates will rise resulting in less affordability in the market, and mortgage applications will decline. But that kind of cyclical activity is normal. Our business is accustomed to handling those typical economic and seasonal cycles. Everyone will probably welcome a break in the activity.

I hope and sincerely believe the experts are calling this situation correctly, so hold on for the ride and look forward to the break.

CFPB issues proposed rule to ban foreclosures until 2022

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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a notice on April 5 proposing an Amendment to Regulation X that would require a temporary COVID-19 emergency pre-foreclosure review period until December 31, 2021, for principal residences. This amendment would, in effect, stall foreclosures on principal residences until January of 2022. The press release, which can be read here, requests public comments on the proposal through May 10, 2021.

The press release states nearly three million borrowers are delinquent in mortgage payments and nearly 1.7 million will exit forbearance programs in September and the following months. The rule proposes to give these borrowers a chance to explore ways to resume making payments and to permit servicers to offer streamlined loan modification options to borrowers with COVID-related hardships.

Under current rules, borrowers must be 120 days delinquent before the foreclosure process can begin. Anticipating a wave of new foreclosures, the CFPB seeks to provide borrowers more time for the opportunity to be evaluated for loss mitigation.

Many provisions of the CARES Act apply only to federally backed mortgages, but the CFPB seeks, by this proposed rules change, to set a blanket standard across the mortgage industry.

Some news from the transition that may affect dirt lawyers

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While we don’t all agree on politics, something we can all embrace from last week were the hilarious Bernie Sanders’ mitten memes. I saw friends from both sides of the aisle post one funny version after another. I even saw an interview that had Bernie himself laughing about them. He appears to be a good sport!  As a South Carolinian, my two favorites involved the Coburg cow and Cocky. I, for one, needed the comic relief.

There were a couple of real news items for real estate practitioners to consider.

First, the CFPB Director, Kathy Kraninger, stepped down at the request of the new administration. This blog has discussed several cases that have argued the CFPB was unconstitutionally organized as violating the separation of powers doctrine because it had a single director that could only be removed for cause. Last year, the Supreme Court held in Seila Law v. CFPB that the director can be removed at will by the president.

An interim director was named to take control until a permanent director can be confirmed. Rohit Chopra, a commissioner of the Federal Trade Association, is the choice to be the permanent CFPB Director. Stay tuned for changes that may be implemented under the new leadership. Speculation is that the bureau’s enforcement and oversight activities will be beefed up with an emphasis on COVID-related consumer relief.

Speaking of COVID relief, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has announced that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will extend their moratoriums on single-family foreclosures and real estate owned (REO) evictions through February 28. The moratoriums were set to expire at the end of this month.

The administration would also like to ease the current housing market pain of high home prices and low inventories by proposing a $15,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit which would serve as down payment assistance. There is also speculation that mortgage insurance premiums may be reduced.

On the other hand, mortgage rates appear to be on the rise, so it remains to be seen whether the new administration’s efforts to encourage development and home ownership will be successful.  As always, real estate practitioners will need to keep an eye on the news to assist them in predicting how 2021 will sort out on the housing front and in their businesses.

One-day error invalidates mechanic’s lien

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South Carolina’s Court of Appeals has made it crystal clear that our mechanics’ lien statutes must be strictly construed. In a case* refiled December 2, the Court affirmed the Circuit Court’s award of summary judgment because the lien was filed 91 days after the last work was performed, not 90 days, as the statute requires.

The case involved a kitchen remodel job in Columbia. The contractor was a kitchen designer who was paid not by the hour, but by the difference in the wholesale and retail cost of the products she purchased and installed. In this case, she was hired because she was the only dealer for Crystal Cabinets in the Columbia area.

The homeowner’s quote was slightly less than $50,000 plus about $3,000 for cabinet installation, payable in three installments. The homeowners paid two-thirds of the contract price but refused to pay the final installment because they were dissatisfied with the cabinets. The parties and the manufacturer were unable to come to terms. The contractor’s last work, according to its own pleadings, was performed on August 18, 2015, and the mechanic’s lien was served on November 17, 2015, a difference of 91 days. The Circuit Court granted the homeowner’s motion for summary judgment and awarded attorney’s fees, based on the one-day discrepancy.

On appeal, the contractor argued that the work actually extended beyond August 18, but the Court of Appeals held the contractor was bound by the pleadings. The contractor then argued that an amendment to the pleadings could easily cure the “slight discrepancy” between the date alleged in the lien and the actual date of the last work, but the Court held that this issue could not properly be raised on appeal. The contractor should have requested leave of the lower court to amend its pleadings.

The bottom line is that counting correctly is crucial in mechanics’ lien litigation! Be careful out there, lawyers!

* The Kitchen Planners, LLC v. Friedman, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5738, Refiled December 2, 2020.

Court of Appeals refiles order setting a timing rule on ATI exemption

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The new rule favors the taxpayer

A case* from the South Carolina Court of Appeals on August 26 concerns South Carolina Code Section 12-17-3135 which allows a 25% property tax exemption when there is an “Assessable Transfer of Interest” of real estate. The issue was one of timing, whether a property owner must claim this exemption during the first year of eligibility.

The order was withdrawn by the Court of Appeals, and a new order with the same result was refiled on December 23, 2020**. In comparing the two orders, I could find only one change, the deletion of a sentence that didn’t appear to affect the result. Perhaps someone involved in the case can point out the reason for withdrawing and refiling the order. Regardless, the Court of Appeals lets the result of its prior decision stand.

The Administrative Law Judge had consolidated two cases. In both cases, the property owner had purchased property during the closing months of 2012. Neither taxpayer claimed the ATI Exemption in 2013, but both claimed it in January of 2014. The Dorchester County Assessor denied the requests, but the ALJ decided the exemptions had been timely claimed.

The statutory language in question provides that the county assessor must be notified before January 31 for the tax year for which the owner first claims eligibility. The taxpayers argued that the plain meaning of this language allows them to choose when to claim the exemption. The Assessor argued that the exemption must be claimed by January 31 of the year following the transfers.

The Court looked at taxation of real property as a whole and held that the legislature intended that all purchasers would have a meaningful opportunity to claim the exemption. Under the Assessor’s interpretation, there would be a much less meaningful opportunity for taxpayers who purchase property later in the calendar year.

The Court also stated that the ATI Exemption is not allowed to override the appraised value set in the statutorily required five-year reassessment scheme, so there would be a built-in time limit for claiming the exemption.

* Fairfield Waverly, LLC v. Dorchester County Assessor, Opinion 5769 (August 26, 2020)

** Fairfield Waverly, LLC v. Dorchester County Assessor, Opinion 5769 (August 26, 2020); Withdrawn, Substituted and Refiled December 23, 2020.

Will Bay Point Island in Beaufort County be developed?

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Bay Point Island – Image courtesy of The Post and Courier

An interesting development vs. environment saga has been transpiring in Beaufort County for the last few years. In 2016, the town council of Hilton Head voted to accept an application for the annexation of Bay Point Island, a vulnerable barrier island at the mouth of Port Royal sound. But two storms and the knowledge of the historical and ecological significance of the island caused the council to back away, and the island has remained largely untouched.

The island currently has no infrastructure and is only accessible by boat or air.

The island is a refuge for thousands of shorebirds and seabirds and the home of other wildlife, including threatened sea turtles. It also protects fragile marshland and water rich in fish and other marine life. Beaufort County has designated Bay Point a “T1 Natural Preserve”, the county’s most restrictive rural zoning designation.

The county development code states this designation is “intended to preserve areas that contain sensitive habitats, open space and limited agricultural uses. This Zone typically does not contain buildings; however, single-family dwellings, small civic buildings or interpretive centers may be located within this zone.”

A Bangkok, Thailand resort developer seeks to build and operate on Bay Point Island fifty beach bungalows, four spa and wellness centers, several restaurants and areas for listening to music and watching movies.

The developers submitted a special use application for “ecotourism”, but Beaufort County’s Zoning Board of Appeals denied this application on September 24. That denial is being appealed. 

An interesting new development is the entry of The Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association into the dispute. The South Carolina Environmental Law Project issued a press release on November 27 announcing the Association has filed a motion to intervene in the appeal.

According to the press release, the Association seeks to intervene because the livelihoods of its members will be impacted by the development. For generations, the Association’s members have relied on the marshes, beaches and waters surrounding Bay Point to harvest fish and shellfish which support their businesses and their families.

Opponents of the development include Governor Henry McMaster. Environmentalists argue that the damage from the resort would extend beyond the island to the nearby marshes which would be threatened with increased chemical, storm water and septic runoff.  

Ecotourism permits in Beaufort County have been granted for oyster farms, flower farms and kayak operators. This resort development would be a huge leap from those environmentally friendly uses, according to the development’s opponents.