‘Every acre counts’: The mad dash to save historic Hilton Head land from tax auction

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In the last week of September, native island leaders on Hilton Head Island scramble to call family members, childhood friends and retired neighbors to ask if they’re going to pay their taxes.

It’s an awkward question, but it comes from a good place.

Alex Brown, who makes these calls, said family and friends are better off hearing his voice on the line rather than receiving a notice in the mail or having a bureaucrat ask the same question.

They make the calls because one week later, on the first Monday of October, Beaufort County holds its tax delinquency sale where the public can bid on properties whose owners have not paid taxes.

The county, and nearly every state in the U.S., calls these sales the “forced collection of property taxes.”

It’s also the biggest modern threat to native-owned land.

In the 150 years since the end of the Civil War, freed slaves and their descendants obtained land on Hilton Head Island, created homes and established a shellfishing-based economy. When they died, they passed down family land through unwritten wills. Keeping the properties in the families now presents legal challenges for dwindling historic neighborhoods on Hilton Head.

“These are places and times when some of our historic neighborhoods can slip away from us,” Gullah-Geechee cultural preservation task force chair Lavon Stevens said of the sale. “Sometimes people don’t even know when they’re on the list.”

After the Jan. 15 deadline each year, the Beaufort County treasurer assembles a list of delinquent properties. Those on the list have until 4 p.m. on the Friday before the tax sale to pay and keep their properties from going to auction.

Tax sale 1
James Smalls, of Beaufort, bids on a property up for auction during the Beaufort County Tax Sale on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016 at the Charles Lind Brown gymnasium in Beaufort. The sale of properties whose owners have fallen behind on their taxes is held annually on the first Monday in October. Jay Karr jkarr@islandpacket.com

If a property is sold, the original owner has one year and one day to redeem it by paying the outstanding taxes and interest, according to South Carolina state law.

This year, 347 properties in Beaufort County were listed for sale. Of those, Stevens’ task force identified 17 that belonged to historic neighborhoods on Hilton Head, including Chaplin, Stoney, Squire Pope, Spanish Wells and Baygall.

How families lose land in one year

On Hilton Head Island, getting the list of who’s going to auction is critical.

The task force, which helps connect people with money to pay their taxes, usually gets it in late spring. Its members spend the whole summer calling people and determining who needs help.

In Beaufort County, anyone can pay taxes on any property, country treasurer Maria Walls told The Island Packet, so anonymous donors and family friends can help someone keep their land.

But it doesn’t always work.

“I’ve seen it firsthand,” Brown said. “One year you’ve got Gullah folks living on their property, and the next year they’ve moved and somebody else is there.”

In 1995, there were about 3,500 acres of Gullah-owned land on Hilton Head Island, according to a study by the culture and land preservation task force.

By 2017 there were just 1,000.

“At this point, every acre counts,” Brown said. “Every half-acre counts, really.”

In the two years since the task force was established, Brown said fewer heirs’ properties have gone to auction.

In fact, fewer properties overall have gone to auction in recent years.

In 2014, 243 bidders bought a total of 552 properties, according to the Treasurer’s Office. That compares to 194 bidders in 2017 buying 291 properties, and 199 bidders this year buying 279 properties.

Groups fighting to shorten the tax delinquency list

Several groups work in the shadows to help those who end up on the list.

Johnna Neil, right, a Beaufort County delinquent tax agent, helps Lucy Campbell, left, with delinquent tax collection on the last day residents could pay their taxes before the tax sale in 2011. Many in line with other tax related business were caught in long lines.

Theresa White, founder of the Pan-African Family Empowerment Network (PAFEN), has long had access to the list and been able to connect native families with private donors.

Most recently, PAFEN connected Laura Lawyer Jones with a Georgia-based artist to pay $1,416 in outstanding taxes on her north end property, which had been in her family for three generations.

“I came home and the tears couldn’t stop falling,” Jones said at the time. “It means a lot, because if we didn’t have this where would I be? If I didn’t have this I’d be homeless.”

While PAFEN works, an anonymous group of Hilton Head residents works its way through the list, too.

Brown, who is part of the informal group, said its members get the list as soon as possible from the newly hired historic neighborhoods preservation administrator on Hilton Head, Sheryse Dubose.

Then, they divide it according to who knows who. If a member is related to someone on the list or done business with them, they volunteer to call and talk taxes.

This year, the group paid for only one property. The rest, he said, were handled within the families.

Stevens said knowing that one’s name is on the list is crucial. This year, most historic properties owed less than $2,000 in taxes.

One owed just $61.

‘Swimming in a shark tank’ at auction

Once a property ends up at the sale, it’s not necessarily lost.

Call it an unspoken understanding or custom, but bidders have historically yielded to heirs trying to save their land at the tax sale, calling it “disrespectful” to take advantage of a family’s tax delinquency.

If a sale is not competitive, heirs can bid the minimum to keep the land in family hands and start the process toward clearing the title, The Island Packet has previously reported. Successful heirs’ bidding was greeted with cheers, and those who broke the informal understanding would face the audience’s wrath.

Tax sale 2
Auctioneer Darron Meares, of Meares Auction Group out of Greenville, acknowledges a bidder during the Beaufort County Tax Sale on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. Jay Karr jkarr@islandpacket.com

The practice is discussed on the Beaufort County treasurer’s website, although it reminds readers that “this practice is not based on South Carolina State Statute and is not a policy enforced by the Beaufort County Treasurer’s Office. Adherence to this practice is strictly up to the individual bidder.”

In recent years, though, this respect for heirs’ property has been slowly disappearing. Starting at the 2013 auction, some heirs’ property owners were outbid on their land, as real estate investors ignored pleas to not bid, The Island Packet reported at the time.

“It’s been diluting itself over the years,” Brown said. “The property has become so valuable that you’re swimming in a shark tank.”

Are things looking up?

On the bright side, fewer bidders this year have had to yield to heirs because, in general, Brown said there are not as many heirs’ properties at the auction.

With the establishment of PAFEN and other groups, more people know they’re on the list and can do something about it.

White said the 2019 sale was the shortest one she’s ever seen: Less than four hours. In years past, the sale was spread over two days to get through all the properties.

“A lot of poor people have lost property because the taxes can be paid by richer people” with no ties to the land, she said. “We’re working to change that.”

Brown, and those allowed to remain on their generational land, say it’s working.

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.