Real Estate News

Ties to owner questioned ahead of council's Pepper Hall vote

Two Beaufort County Council members' ties to the owner of Pepper Hall are being questioned ahead of a pivotal vote Monday to purchase the property in greater Bluffton.

Former council members Dot Gnann and Steve Baer are calling on Cynthia Bensch and Jerry Stewart to disclose what they say are close personal interests in the sale.

Both Bensch and Stewart support the county's plan to borrow $12 million to purchase 84 acres of Robert Graves' land along U.S. 278 and the Okatie River, known as Pepper Hall. The property currently serves as Graves' horse farm.

They were among the five prevailing council members who voted to approve a financing plan for the property after a heated debate earlier this month.

Bensch did not publicly disclose that her son, Anthony Bensch, is married to Graves' daughter, Allyson Graves, according to Gnann, who intends to address the issue at Monday's meeting.

"That is too close a family relation to vote and lobby for something," Gnann said last week. "It may have been legal, but to me, that is pretty close to a super conflict of interest."

Stewart did not announce that Graves contributed $1,000, the maximum allowed by an individual, to Stewart's re-election campaign in last summer's Republican primary, Baer said.

"I'm thinking back to the days of when (now state Rep.) Weston Newton was on council, and when there were very remote connections, and he recused himself," said Baer, who served with Newton during two council terms. "It may have exceeded the legal need, but it was a very honorable thing to do. At the very least before any vote, he should tell council that."

Both Baer and Gnann point to Councilman Tabor Vaux as an example.

Vaux has recused himself from all discussions about Pepper Hall since he joined the council two years ago. He works for Bluffton law firm Vaux and Marscher alongside attorney Jim Scheider, who represents Graves in the Pepper Hall sale.

By recusing himself, Vaux avoids any legal or perceived improprieties with the deal, he said last week.

Bensch and Stewart defended their votes Friday.

The family connection between Bensch and Graves does not violate state ethics laws, according to an opinion issued last spring by then-S.C. Ethics Commission general counsel Cathy Hazelwood. Bensch sought the opinion during council discussions about the potential rezoning of the Pepper Hall tract, she said.

She had considered recusing herself, but Hazelwood wrote that the father of a daughter-in-law is outside the statutory definition of a "familial connection" under the ethics codes, deputy county administrator and county attorney Josh Gruber said Friday. Bensch shared the letter at the time with county administration and the full council, she and Gruber said.

"I've said 100 times, neither the law nor my conscience requires me to recuse myself," Bensch said. "I can vote as fairly and unbiased on this as anything else. Just follow the law, follow the code."

Stewart also contends that his connection to Graves is too distant to influence his vote.

"In a small community like this, with all the developers, it's very difficult to seek support without bumping up against the people who have special interests," Stewart said. "If you look at anybody who's run for re-election, I doubt there's very many, if any, that don't have something like that."

Stewart also cited his previous votes against proposed development agreements with Graves for the Pepper Hall property.

"In my heart I know I've done nothing wrong," he said. "I've not wavered or done anything differently because of that contribution or any contribution. What more can I say?"

Bensch and Stewart agree the county needs to purchase the land to have more say on any development's density there and any efforts to prevent environmental harm that development could cause. Such control cannot be achieved with just zoning and development agreements, and Graves has suggested he would challenge such restrictions in court should the county choose not to buy the property.

"I would say of all the property we've ever bought or are ever going to buy, this is one that affects so many people because it contributes to our environment like nothing else does," Bensch said.

Despite its initial 5-4 vote to approve the financing April 13, the plan still faces an uphill battle, and Monday's vote will prove pivotal.

Councilman Steve Fobes, who was absent on April 13, now represents the swing vote in the deal.

An affirmative vote from him Monday would keep the plan alive for a third, final vote and public hearing next month. A negative vote would leave the council in a 5-5 tie, killing the borrowing plan -- possibly for good.

Fobes has said he is still undecided.

However, he echoes the concerns of other council members who oppose the deal. They say there is no concrete plan for how to market the property to prospective businesses or developers after it is bought. Gnann and Baer make the same argument against the purchase.

"As far as how the vote will go Monday, flip a coin," Stewart said. "It could be 50-50. It's an up or down vote, and if it goes down, it goes down. Then it's out of us, and it's up to the family and what they decide to do."

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