Real Estate

Beaufort County killed plans for this massive Bluffton development. Now it’s being sued.

The owners of Hilton Head National Golf Club in greater Bluffton filed a lawsuit Monday against Beaufort County and the Beaufort County Council.
The owners of Hilton Head National Golf Club in greater Bluffton filed a lawsuit Monday against Beaufort County and the Beaufort County Council.

The fight over the future of the Hilton Head National Golf Club — previously confined to Beaufort County Council and planning board hearings — has moved to the courts.

Scratch Golf, LLC, the owner of the golf course and subsidiary of Virgina-based firm the United Company, filed a lawsuit Monday against the county and council, arguing that the company wasn’t given a fair shake after asking the county for permission to rezone the property for residential and commercial development.

The suit comes about four months after Beaufort County Council voted overwhelmingly to deny a rezoning application for the property along U.S. 278 in greater Bluffton and about four years after the owners first came to the county with plans to transform the course.

Following a 2013 decision by the Beaufort County Planning Commission to deny a request to rezone the roughly 300-acre site on Malphrus Road and Bluffton Parkway, Hilton Head National’s owners applied again for a zoning change last July.

Currently zoned for rural-type uses, the new zoning would have allowed a variety of development types.

Conceptual plans initially 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.

Scratch Golf’s lawsuit claims that members of County Council “seized the opportunity to mischaracterize the the rezoning application as overreaching.”

A revised rezoning application submitted last November scaled the project back, reducing the retail space by 300,000 square feet, apartments by 100 units, single-family homes by 200 units, and convention center space by 25,000 square feet.

Scratch Golf’s lawsuit argues that this type of development has been deemed appropriate in the area by the county’s own Community Development Code, a document used to guide growth.

According to the suit, “continued development (near the course) has been approved by the county for other property owners and developers, but not for (Scratch Golf).”

The County Council voted in January to form a development agreement subcommittee — made up of County Councilmen Tabor Vaux, Steve Fobes and Rick Caporale — to negotiate with the course’s owners.

A series of public meetings earlier this year drew hundreds of locals, many of them vocal opponents of Scratch Golf’s plans for the course.

The suit argues that “opposition to rezoning (was) organized from within council” and elected officials unfairly helped stoke public outrage.

The lawsuit claims that Vaux “solicited signatures for a online petition opposing” the owners’ rezoning application and used a public question and answer session on the proposed development “to spread false information” about that application.

When negotiations ultimately collapsed and the rezoning request was denied, the council’s “failure to comply with its own carefully crafted (development code) … (was) arbitrary, capricious and irrational,” according to the suit.

The council “did not a state a reasonable, rational basis to deny” Scratch Golf’s request, the suit says. The county has “a duty to enact and enforce land use regulations and corresponding zoning laws … without discrimination.”

Jeff Tibbals, a Charleston-based attorney representing Scratch Golf, responded Monday evening to a phone call for comment with an emailed statement.

“Scratch Golf and Hilton Head National have been part of the Beaufort County community for nearly 30 years, providing employment, recreation, municipal revenue, and other benefits to the local economy,” Tibbals wrote. “Due to the rapid pace of growth in the greater Bluffton area, we understand that the rezoning proposal generated an emotional response for many who live and work here. However, the Constitution and state laws provide protection to ensure fair treatment for all citizens. Scratch Golf has made a decision to seek to preserve these fundamental rights, and we look forward to a decision on the merits.”

The lawsuit’s 45-page complaint is supplemented with more than 100 pages of exhibits.

Those exhibits include sections from a 2012 economic report on land use development produced for Beaufort County; several news articles, including a February piece from The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette; meeting minutes from the Beaufort County Planning Commission; Scratch Golf’s application to amend the county’s future land use and zoning maps; text messages exchanged between a County Council member and a resident; text messages exchanged between a County Council member and members of the media, including a Packet and Gazette reporter; and a series of emails exchanged between County Council members.

Those emails — which the suit claims were sent over a two-day period in March — include all three members of the development agreement subcommittee along with Councilman Mike Covert, whose district includes portions of greater Bluffton.

Copies of those emails appear to show council members discussing aspects of the Hilton Head National development proposal and the rezoning request.

Scratch Golf’s 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.

Scratch Golf “may have to terminate or severely curtail its business operations” and risks losing “investment interests,” should the council not grant the company’s rezoning request, according to the suit.

Among its list of requests, the lawsuit asks the court to award Scratch Golf unspecified compensatory damages, reimbursement of attorneys’ fees and related costs, and issue an order allowing the golf course to be developed in accordance with the county’s comprehensive plan and development code.

“It is our policy, generally, not to comment on pending litigation,” Beaufort County attorney Tom Keaveny wrote in an email Tuesday morning. “We understand Scratch Golf’s disappointment in the outcome of its rezoning application. However, we believe that in reviewing the application, Beaufort County and the members of County Council followed the law and the requirements of the Community Development Code.”

It could be quite some time before the issues raised in the suit are adjudicated.

Beaufort County civil cases are first required to go to mediation prior to being heard by a judge.

There is a mediation session set for April, according to court documents.