A Beaufort County judge has issued a temporary restraining order against two landowners to halt their attempt to annex their Okatie-area properties into Hardeeville for future residential and commercial development.
Beaufort County Master in Equity Judge Marvin Dukes issued the order Thursday, according to court documents, after the county filed a lawsuit Wednesday against LCP III LLC and BBII Holding Company LLC — owners of Malind Bluff and Malind Pointe, respectively. County officials contend the landowners have existing development agreements that prevent them from working with Hardeeville.
County officials, including Interim Beaufort County Administrator Josh Gruber, called the attempt "jurisdiction shopping" — a case in which developers aren't happy with the arrangement they have with the county and try to circumvent the process and find a better deal elsewhere.
Sloan Saunders, a BBII representative, declined comment on the suit when reached Friday morning.
Two phone messages left with LCP III's Nathan Duggins were not returned.
The properties — two tracts of land totaling roughly 120 acres near the Okatie River, east of S.C. 170 between Cherry Point and Pritcher Point roads — have a long, contentious history with the county. They are remnants of a project that fizzled during the 2008 economic downturn.
More recently, they've been controversial pieces in the area's high-stakes development game: County officials said they were blindsided by the annexation attempt, and the political fallout that ensued prompted an apology from Hardeeville Mayor Harry Williams. He said he should have given the county a heads-up.
Williams also said he is encouraging his colleagues on city council to oppose the project.
The properties are located in an area bracing for dramatic growth in coming years and offer a case study of the tensions between developers, government agencies and the public, all of whom are trying to get a handle on the Lowcountry's future.
Malind Bluff and Malind Point are the remnants of the controversial Okatie Village plan, which collapsed after the downturn. The parcels were re-envisioned with amendments and, as recently as March, were still being considered by the county.
But on May 9, purportedly because they were frustrated with the county's process, the landowners approached Hardeeville with a request to annex and a plan to build more than 700 homes.
According to Gruber, there was one big difference between that plan and the one previously negotiated with the county: Malind Pointe no longer included an assisted living facility but instead was being pitched to Hardeeville as a dense residential development.
On Friday morning, Gruber said the county suspected a previously agreed-upon, $6,000-per-home school impact fee — designed to ease the strain on nearby schools such as Okatie Elementary — might have been another reason the developers looked to Hardeeville.
He added that the county's agreement with Malind Bluff expressly prohibited landowners from seeking annexation.
In addition to the impact on schools, county officials worry about the project's effect on the environment and the burden on county taxpayers for emergency response services.
But Hardeeville officials have said they, too, are committed to safeguarding the environment and that emergency services would be a shared responsibility between city and county. They also suggested developers would "probably be required" to pay school impact fees, which would go to the county.
And they noted the project pitched to Hardeeville included workforce housing units, which would benefit everyone in the area.
Okatie soon will be home to another Hardeeville development — East Argent, in Jasper County — planned for 9,500 homes.
Hardeeville City Manager Michael Czymbor said Friday he was surprised to learn about the county's lawsuit.
"We're reviewing it now and really don't have any comment," Czymbor said. "The dispute is between the county and the developer, and (Hardeeville) was not named in the lawsuit. We'll let the legal system play out and have a position based on what happens."
The county contends its agreements with the property owners are binding until 2022.
Gruber acknowledged that the county has lost previous annex suits, but said this one is different — because it's not really about annexation but a breach of contract, which he said gives the case solid legal footing.
"We believe that we have an existing agreement that is valid and in place, and that is a contractual agreement," he said.
A hearing is scheduled before Dukes for 2:30 p.m. Thursday in Beaufort, when he'll hear from both parties.