A historic schoolhouse in Okatie is being renovated so that it can become an investment office, but Beaufort County officials say they learned last week that the building should not have been sold and might take legal action to block the conversion.
The former one-room Barrel Landing School was sold last year for $15,000 by Sun City Hilton Head developer Del Webb to Edward Jones financial adviser Bill Sauter, who is converting the building to a new office.
But last week, County Council learned that the sale might have violated the property's 1994 deed, drawn up when the county sold the building to the developer. The document says that if Del Webb will not or cannot maintain the historic property, its ownership should revert to the county, according to county attorney Josh Gruber.
Sauter said he did not know of that language until contacted by a county representative last week, but argues he is also trying to preserve the schoolhouse and intends to make a publicly accessible display as part of a new Edward Jones office.
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"The whole reason we (purchased it) was so that we could have something that we were able to protect for the benefit of the community," Sauter said. "We looked at it and said, 'Why should we let the building just continue to sit there and fall into further disrepair?'"
Attempts Tuesday to contact a Del Webb representative for comment were unsuccessful.
Sauter approached Del Webb last year and presented a plan to buy the property for $15,000, he said. Under the plan, the schoolhouse would serve as his personal office, and an addition along the back of the schoolhouse would be the office's main entrance, he said.
"The intent was to purchase the building and to repurpose it with the least amount of intrusion into the existing structure," Sauter said.
Sauter is relocating to the schoolhouse from his office on William Pope Drive in Okatie. Construction began on the office at the schoolhouse nearly a month ago and could be completed by February, he said.
The exterior of the schoolhouse will remain the same, with its historic white walls, pale-green trim and red roof, Sauter said. He added that the interior will contain some of the schoolhouse's benches and artifacts, as well as a display detailing the building's history, which spans more than 150 years.
The office will be available for viewing by the public with advanced notice, and Sauter said he wants to invite classes from Okatie Elementary School to see the display.
However, some County Council members are concerned that Del Webb's sale to Sauter last December is a breach of the county's agreement. Council members discussed the issue Dec. 2 at a meeting of the Governmental Committee and asked the county attorney to investigate.
The county didn't learn of the sale until a resident contacted committee Chairman Jerry Stewart a few days before the meeting.
"My real concern is that we have to chase people to live up to the agreements they made," Councilman Rick Caporale said.
The county hired Beaufort real estate attorney Thomas Bendle Jr. to contact Sauter and explore the county's legal options, Gruber said. That could include an injunction to stop construction.
County Council might also be able to remedy the situation by approving a resolution to amend the agreement to reflect the sale, said Stewart, who represents Sun City on council.
"But if we don't do anything, we're basically setting a precedent," Stewart said.
Regardless of what happens, the schoolhouse should be preserved, said Dot Gnann, who crafted the 1994 deed when she was a County Council member.
"From the perspective of history, it's a great old building," she said.
Built before the Civil War, it was once partially destroyed and reconstructed. Over the years, it has operated as a school, a church, a sewing room and a voting precinct.
When the agreement was first struck, the intention was to make sure the building and all of its history were preserved, and that's still the most important part, Gnann said.
"I'd be exceedingly disappointed if the last little school is not going to be preserved," she said. "Okatie is the lost gem of Beaufort County."
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.