“Beachfront” homeowners don’t always consider accretion to be a blessing

Standard

Sullivan’s Island litigants lose appeal on maritime forest maintenance

On August 1, the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed Master-In-Equity Mikell Scarborough’s award of summary judgment in favor of the Town of Sullivan’s Island in a case where homeowners sought maintenance of the maritime forest that separates their homes from the ocean.*

Many coastal communities would love to face the gradual accretion of more oceanfront property. But, in this case, the additional property became a maritime forest that, according to the adjacent homeowners, breeds snakes, rats, raccoons, bugs, spiders and other unwanted varmints and dangerous animals and also poses danger from fires and criminal activity.

The case cites University of South Carolina Law School Professor Josh Eagle’s explanation of accretion and erosion:  “Sand grains do not magically vanish from or appear on a beach; rather they are going to or coming from somewhere else along the coast.”** The Court stated that while most land use cases along our coast involve erosion, or loss of beachfront sediment, this case involves accretion, or the addition of sediment to the beach front.

sullivan's island

The unique Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse

These litigants have been involved in more than a six-year battle over what they call a “maritime jungle”. A major component of the landowner’s objection is that their properties are taxed as if they are ocean-front properties, but the value of their properties have plummeted more than a million dollars because of lack of ocean views and breezes and lack of access to the beach.

The property that separates these landowners from the ocean was conveyed by the Town to the Lowcountry Open Land Trust in 1991. Simultaneous, the Trust conveyed the land back to the town, subject to restrictions intended to preserve and conserve the natural area. The restrictions require that the property be maintained in its natural state but give the Town the authority to trim and control the growth of vegetation for the purposes of mosquito control and scenic enhancement. The Town also passed ordinances restricting the use of the property against the destruction of vegetation (except trimming, cutting and pruning).

When the 1991 deeds were executed, the ocean adjacent land was covered in sea oats and wildflowers, and the litigants’ homes had unobstructed ocean views and access to ocean breezes. The Town’s brief argued that the problem dates back to Hurricane Hugo, in 1989, which destroyed all the trees on the land. Over time, natural shrubs and trees replaced the bare, hurricane-ravaged land. At the same time, sand built up, making the houses farther from the ocean.

In the summer of 2010, the landowners applied to the Town for a permit to trim and prune the ocean adjacent property, but the Town denied the permit. This litigation followed. On appeal, the landowners argued that the deed restrictions require the Town to preserve the ocean adjacent property exactly as it existed in 1991. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the deed was unambiguous and evidenced the intent that the Town would maintain the land’s natural character. The landowners’ interpretation would require the Town to continuously remove all vegetation from the beach that was not present in 1991, but the Court refused to read the deed to require such drastic management of the property.

Elizabeth Hagood, the Executive Director of the Lowcountry Open Land Trust stated in an affidavit that the Trust periodically and regularly visited the ocean adjacent land, reviewing the existing field conditions, comparing the field conditions to the deed restrictions, and finding nothing violated the deed restrictions.

As to the nuisance arguments, the Court held that those arguments sound in contract rather than tort, and nothing in the contract (the deed or the ordinances) requires the Town to clear the land.

*Bluestein v. Town of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5581 (August 1, 2018)

**Josh Eagle, Coastal Law 6 (2011)

Advertisements

Captain Sam’s Spit continues to be the subject of litigation

Standard

I’ve blogged about “Captain Sam’s Spit” in Kiawah Island previously. Googling that name will reveal a treasure trove of news, opinion and case law involving the proposed development of a gorgeous but extremely precarious tract of pristine beach property on South Carolina’s coast.

The South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Intensive seminar in July of 2016 and again in July of 2018 included field trips to view this property, from a distance at least. Professor Josh Eagle of the University School of Law is an excellent tour guide, and how many opportunities do we, as lawyers, have for field trips? South Carolina Dirt lawyers should calendar the July 2020 version of this workshop.

Real estate development is my bread and butter, but two visits to the area told me that property should not be developed. A fellow field tripper, however, pointed out that the south end of Pawleys Island, where my parents took me to the beach as a child and which has been developed for many years, is just as precarious.

Captain Sam's Spit

Aerial view of Captain Sam’s Spit from The Post & Courier

The South Carolina Environmental Law Project located in Pawleys Island fights these cases. Amy Anderson, an attorney with that entity, joined us and explained the environmental issues as well as the legal battle.

Six months ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that a bulkhead and retaining wall could not be built to develop the property.  Just last month, however, Administrative Law Court Judge Ralph Anderson ruled that a road can be built to support the development because the economic benefits of building homes on Captain Sam’s Spit outweigh its natural preservation.

Here are greatly simplified facts in a very complicated South Carolina Supreme Court case: the developer and the community association entered into a development agreement in 1994. That agreement covered many issues, one of which was the proposed conveyance from the developer to the community association of a ten-mile strip of beachfront property, basically, the entire length of the island. A deed consummated that conveyance in 1995. All of the property conveyed was undevelopable because of the State’s jurisdictional lines.

I didn’t learn the following fact from the published case, but I learned it from one of the lawyers who was kind enough to speak with me. When the jurisdictional lines were redrawn by the State, the 4.62 acre tract became developable. The developer then took the position that the 1994 development agreement and the 1995 deed resulted from a mutual mistake, and that the parties never intended to include that tract.

The Master-in-Equity and Court of Appeals did not see it that way. Both found that the agreement and deed were unambiguous and that parole evidence of the intent of the parties was not allowable. The Supreme Court agreed.

In the recent Administrative Law Court case, Judge Anderson said the economic benefit of developing the property would include real property taxes of $5 million per year. This case is just the most recent in a decade of litigation.

Count on an appeal in this case and other litigation to follow. I’ll keep you posted!