Berkeley Hall, Beaufort County poised to go to court over frontage road

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 22, 2014 

frontage

Vehicles stack up as they attempt to leave St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church after school had been dismissed on a recent afternoon. Beaufort County wants to build a frontage road that would connect the church property to Berkeley Hall Boulevard.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

It started as a thin line on a 2000 map depicting plans for a sprawling development in greater Bluffton that would become Berkeley Hall.

When the map was updated in 2003, the line denoting an easement that might one day connect the gated community's entrance to a church just east on U.S. 278 disappeared.

It seems like just a detail, but it's proving to be a devil.

Berkeley Hall and Beaufort County have fought for six years over that line. They disagree about its original meaning, the legal implications of its disappearance and the best solution to move traffic between U.S. 278 and St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church and its school.

Since Beaufort County Council signed off on that first plan, the new Indian Hill Fire Station has been built east of St. Gregory, which has added the school and hundreds of new members, some of whom live in Berkeley Hall.

County and community representatives agree the traffic to and from the church campus is potentially dangerous, even after the recent widening of U.S. 278 in front of the entrances to Berkeley Hall, the church and the fire station.

But legal issues must be settled before traffic issues can be.

DISPARATE DESIRES

What Beaufort County wants: A frontage road stretching from the Berkeley Hall entrance, eastward to the church and to the fire station. All traffic leaving the church to head eastbound on U.S. 278 would be routed through Berkeley Hall's main entrance.

Flashing lights would continue to mark the entry point to the fire station from U.S. 278, and drivers could use that location to enter and exit only on westbound highway lanes. A new ingress connecting to the frontage road just east of the church's existing entrance would serve drivers entering the church from both eastbound and westbound U.S. 278, but would only allow exits to the westbound lanes.

What Berkeley Hall wants: A frontage road between St. Gregory and the fire station, with a fully signalized traffic light -- rather than the existing blinking light -- at the fire station entrance for eastbound and westbound U.S. 278 traffic. Berkeley Hall's entrance would be left as is.

WHICH PLAN TAKES PRECEDENCE

Beaufort County says: The text of a 1999 planned unit development agreement, which allows for two 18-hole golf courses and nearly 650 homes, supersedes all other plans because it was approved by County Council, according to county attorney Josh Gruber. The 2003 update submitted by the developers was approved only by the county's planning department.

And it was in error, Gruber adds, because by omitting the easement -- that little line at the center of the dispute -- it contradicted what council approved.

County officials attempted to correct their mistake, Gruber said, with a December 2005 letter to Berkeley Hall developer Gary Rowe. That letter asked Rowe to resubmit a plan that included the access.

However, that never happened, and the 2003 map remains the most recent map.

Berkeley Hall says: The 2003 map, as the most recent document, is the operative version, Berkeley Hall general manager Adrian Morris counters. Under the community's understanding of the agreement, it must base any of its construction or development on that approved map, he said.

Morris also says Berkeley Hall never received the letter seeking a revision of the map referenced by Gruber. The letter would have been sent at about the time the community membership took control of Berkeley Hall from its developers, and perhaps it was lost in the transition, Morris said.

Even so, the request to correct the map has not been repeated since, Morris said, nor have Gruber or other county lawyers referenced to it during litigation to settle the dispute.

ORIGINAL INTENT

Berkeley Hall says: Even if a court were to determine that the 1999 plan carries more legal weight, it would not obligate the community to accede to the county's plan for the frontage road, Berkeley Hall representatives argue.

First, the easement for access to the church was granted to St. Gregory the Great, not Beaufort County, they claim. As such, the county cannot unilaterally decide to connect a frontage road to the community's private entrance. In fact, Berkeley Hall board members say, that is probably why the county condemned the property containing the disputed easement in 2008, rather than simply suing the community to enforce the 1999 agreement -- it lacks the legal justification to press such a case in court.

That's because the inclusion of the easement was not about moving parishioners on and off U.S. 278. Rather, the provision was about connecting the church and the planned unit developments that surrounded it -- Eagle's Pointe to the east and Berkeley Hall to the west. That way, traffic would be kept off U.S. 278, the busy artery that only figured to get busier in the future.

Were it County Council's aim to accommodate traffic moving in and out of the church parking lot, it would have insisted upon an additional easement to allow legal use of Berkeley Hall Boulevard for that purpose, the community's board argues.

However, no such provision was ever made, its members insist.

Beaufort County says: The original plan includes wording explicitly noting the access, and was created in anticipation of the church's growing campus and increasing traffic needs along U.S. 278, Gruber and county administrator Gary Kubic have said.

"Significant elements of the master plan include ... provision for a road access easement to the adjacent Catholic church site," according to the only mention of access in the text of the agreement.

WHICH PLAN IS SAFEST?

Beaufort County says: Its plan is safer because it provides the greatest amount of traffic relief at the church entrance by sending vehicles to intersections both east and west of the church.

Sensors underneath U.S. 278 at the intersection of the frontage road and the Berkeley Hall entrance will monitor traffic patterns and automatically adjust the traffic signal at the intersection on U.S. 278 in front of Berkeley Hall to "flush" traffic from the community's entrance, county traffic engineer Colin Kinton said.

The county proposal also eliminates the need for U-turns to enter from or exit to westbound U.S. 278 from the church, he added. A new ingress just east of the church's existing entrance would connect to the frontage road to serve drivers entering the church from eastbound U.S. 278, Kinton said.

Berkeley Hall says: A new, fully signalized traffic signal at the fire station would allow for U.S. 278 access without overburdening the light at Berkeley Hall's entrance, Morris said.

Because Berkeley Hall and the church share peak traffic times, particularly during the weekend, separate and distinct routes handled at two, fully signalized intersections is the only safe way to deal with the volume, Berkeley Hall representatives contend.

THIRD-PARTY VIEWS

Talking points prepared for The Island Packet by Berkeley Hall representatives quote copiously from minutes of a 1999 County Council meeting, at which the planned unit development that would become Berkeley Hall was discussed. The excerpts include questions from then-Councilwoman Dot Gnann, which seem to suggest the county's focus was connecting planned unit developments, not getting churchgoers in and out of St. Gregory's parking lot.

The developers' attorney, Lewis Hammet, agrees. In a 2009 letter to the county's lawyers, Hammet contends nothing was mentioned about long-term traffic planning during those discussions.

However, Gnann doesn't remember it that way.

She was part of the council's planning committee during negotiations that created the planned unit development -- at a time before Gruber or county administrator Gary Kubic worked for the county. Gnann said Thursday that the committee was indeed interested in preventing congestion on U.S. 278, which it considered a mounting problem.

That's precisely why the committee recommended that the final plan for the development include provisions for church access, she said.

"I just think Berkeley Hall is wrong," Gnann said. "I don't have the meeting minutes in front of me, but my memory is clear. Gary Kubic is absolutely correct, as far as I am concerned."

Gnann has not been involved in the lawsuit over the county's condemnation of the property it would need to connect a frontage road to the Berkeley Hall entrance.

Hammet apparently was asked by both Berkeley Hall and the county to be a witness on their behalf in ongoing legal battles, but he declined both requests, according to his 2009 letter.

Attempts Thursday and Friday to reach Hammet for comment were unsuccessful.

COMPROMISE POSSIBLE?

The county and Berkeley Hall must resolve two disputes: The lawsuit filed by the county to acquire, by condemnation, land for the frontage road, and an appeal of state environmental permits necessary to build the road through a patch of wetlands between the church and Berkeley Hall's entrance.

Last week, the county told the 14th Circuit Court it wants to resume the lawsuit, which was put on hold two years ago, when Berkeley Hall appealed the permits.

Unless Berkeley Hall and the county reach a settlement, the community's appeal of the environmental permit will return to S.C. Administrative Law Court later this year, Gruber said.

If the county's request to resume the lawsuit is granted, the circuit court probably would schedule a court date for later this year, and Berkeley Hall's appeal of the DHEC permit in administrative court could take place at the same time.

In the meantime, representatives from the club, county and church say they will meet to try to reach an out-of-court resolution.

If the expense of a compromise is an issue, Berkeley Hall and the county could share costs, according to Scott Maxwell, a Berkeley Hall resident, vice president of the club's board of directors and a St. Gregory's parishioner.

Over the course of six years of legal battles, attorneys fees and traffic consultants have cost the county $300,000 and the club more than $500,000, Gruber and Morris said.

"The (Berkeley Hall) membership would rather spend money on solutions than litigation," Maxwell said.

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

Map

Beaufort County's proposal for US 278 frontage road

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