Attorneys representing Beaufort County and the Beaufort County Council are asking a judge to throw out or set aside a portion of the lawsuit brought last month by the owners of Hilton Head National Golf Club.
Course owner Scratch Golf’s suit — which comes after the County Council denied a rezoning application that would have set the stage for a transformation of the 300-acre property off U.S. 278 in greater Bluffton — includes allegations that the council violated the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, denied the owners due process during a zoning change decision, and deprived the company of its property rights by not allowing the course to be developed in accordance with the county’s land use rules.
In a motion filed earlier this week, the county’s lawyers are asking the court to dismiss the allegations of Freedom of Information Act’s open meetings rules violations. And if the court is not willing to dismiss the allegations outright, the county’s motion asks that the issue be considered separately from other allegations.
Scratch Golf, which is a subsidiary of Virgina-based firm the United Company, submitted conceptual development plans to the county last year that called for the possibility of building up 700,000 square feet of retail space, 400 apartments, 500 single-family homes, an assisted-living facility, a 125,0000-square-foot convention center and a 1,500-seat performing arts center by 2030.
Following push-back from county leaders and local residents, those plans were scaled back and the company began working with a county council subcommittee tasked with negotiating a development plan that both parties could agree to. Those efforts ultimately failed.
Scratch Golf’s suit accuses members of the subcommittee of violating open meetings regulations by taking part in a series of emails which appear to show discussions about aspects of the Hilton Head National development proposal and the rezoning request.
The lawsuit argues that because all of the subcommittee members were copied on the email thread, it constitutes a meeting of a public body held without public notice — a violation of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
The county has moved to dismiss these allegations because Scratch Golf “relies on copies of (the) emails to assert the Freedom of Information Act violation and, therefore, the content of the meeting is known to (Scratch Golf),” according to court documents.
Because Scratch Golf is already in possession of the emails, “there is no further remedy that can be provided,” the county’s motion says.
Essentially, the county is arguing that even if the emails constituted a meeting, there is nothing it can do but make those emails available to Scratch Golf — something that’s already happened.
Phone calls to attorneys for both parties were not returned as of Friday afternoon.
The county’s motion to dismiss the open meetings violation does not address the various other allegations in Scratch Golf’s suit.
While the motion requests an expedited hearing on the Freedom of Information Act aspect of the suit, it could be months before the all of the issues raised by Scratch Golf are adjudicated.
Beaufort County civil cases are first required to go to mediation prior to being heard by a judge.
A mediation session is set for April, according to court documents.