Hilton Head Island officials are in the middle of an emotionally charged dispute between family members facing eviction from town-acquired land and relatives who want a cut of their inheritance.
And the town's only black town councilman -- who has decried the evictions and accused fellow council members of racism for buying the land -- actually made the motion to buy the property and voted to approve the purchase.
Councilman Bill Ferguson said Wednesday he made a mistake and that town staff failed to inform him as to who lived on the land and would face eviction.
More than 20 people could be forced to move from 5.79 acres of town-purchased land in the Stoney community between William Hilton Parkway and Squire Pope Road. The heirs property was purchased from the Matthew and Teena Jones Family LLC.
Eight of them are heirs who have varying ownership interests among a total of 187 descendants who have claim to the land. The rest living on the property are children of heirs or are renters, meaning they have no ownership stake.
Matthew Jones, a former slave, paid $225 for his parcel in the 1800s. The land was passed through the family for years without a will. After generations, scores of descendants spread from New York to Los Angeles now have claim to it.
A state law passed in 2006 has helped ease some of the complications with heirs property by giving families the right of first refusal to purchase land if a relative decides to sell, preventing an outside developer from butting into family business. But developing heirs property remains a complex proposition. With no clear title, any heir can seek a share of the value of the land by trying to force a sale.
In 2004, Adolph Brown formed the limited liability company and began tracking down heirs with a plan to develop condominiums.
"They did not want to risk their inheritance," said Brown, who owns a Bluffton consulting company and bought shares in the land from relatives. "And in light of what has happened in the housing and financial markets ... had we moved into development, we would have lost millions."
By forming the LLC, family members own the land and become shareholders. Any relative wanting to sell must do so to another member or to the LLC itself.
Since the land could not be split into dozens of pieces, a Beaufort County judge ruled the entire property should be sold and the proceeds divided among the heirs. A later court order issued the evictions so the property could be sold and family members could receive their inheritance.
Though not all those facing eviction are heirs, many are related and have lived on the land for decades. They've paid taxes, built homes and, in one instance, established a business.
They have fought the sale of the land for years, but because a majority of family members want to give it up, the sale went forward, said Shani Green, who lives on the property and opposes the sale.
"Our value is family history and the net worth we've established as a community" over decades of living on the property, which is being taken away, Green said.
Councilman Ferguson and some facing eviction accuse the town of racism, claiming they're being kicked off their land because they are black.
"No one is in the shoes we are walking in, and we want to see justice. ... No one should be treated like we have been treated," said Thelma Byas, 69, who has lived at 125 William Hilton Parkway her whole life.
According to meeting minutes from Town Council's May 18, 2010, meeting, Ferguson made the motion for council to execute a contract to purchase the land from the LLC for $4 million -- or more than $690,000 per acre -- using proceeds from a 2010 land-acquisition bond sale. The motion passed unanimously.
Ferguson said if he had known these families would be evicted, he never would have voted for the purchase.
Town staff members told him those on the land "were all in agreement to sell the property. I found out later on that was not the case," he said.
Ferguson said during council's April 5 meeting it was a "sad state of affairs in 2011 if we don't like black people, we buy them out and kick them off" their land.
COURT APPROVES RELOCATION ASSISTANCE
The LLC secured a loan against proceeds from the sale to help pay to relocate those on the property who can't afford the move otherwise, including non-heirs. But some on the property said they are skeptical of receiving money from the LLC and wanted money from the town to help move.
A judge already has signed off on settlements for four people living on one parcel -- three received $9,000 to $12,000 to vacate, remove mobile homes and relinquish any interest in the land. A fourth owning an unoccupied mobile home on the property could not be reached by a court-appointed receiver, according to records. Some have already moved, Brown said.
Settlements are still being worked out for those living on the other parcel, Brown said. They have until July 6 to leave.
"Our position is, all settlements need to be fair and come out of the proceeds of the sale. We were approached by the family and the majority of the heirs were seeking a sale. We did not go to them, they came to us," said town manager Steve Riley. "And the sale was made based on the assurances that there was a relocation plan in place by the LLC."
Brown, who was voted president of the LLC, said the LLC approached the town, and "this has nothing to do with race." He said the town bought the land at more than market value. If the property had not sold in a private sale, it would have sold at a public auction for significantly less, about $800,000, he said.
"If that had happened, then the family would have received a fraction of their inheritance and there would have been no relocation assistance," Brown said. "Out of 187 people, to have only eight people not happy, I'll take that any day."
He added it is not the town's responsibility to assist in relocation.
"That's a family issue," he said. "You don't buy a home and tell the buyer he's got to find a way for the seller to figure out how to move his kids. Change is hard because of its uncertainty, but change is a must and it's inevitable."
He also said it is Ferguson's responsibility as an elected official to ask questions and understand what he's voting on.
The town purchased the two parcels because of its frontage to marshes along Jarvis Creek, proximity to other town-owned land and location along a stretch of William Hilton Parkway that serves as an entryway to the island, Riley said.
Riley said traffic engineers have recommended buying land in the Stoney area to preserve as open space and thereby relieve pressure on a busy stretch of highway. The purchase also better positions the town to accommodate an acceleration lane from Squire Pope Road and widen William Hilton Parkway, should that be necessary, he added.