Beaufort News

County could resort to eminent domain to complete St. Helena projects

Beaufort County Council might use eminent domain to seize about two acres on St. Helena Island near a proposed library and health center.

However, a member of the family that owns the parcel says he might challenge the move in court.

"We don't want to do that, but if we have to, we will," said Arnold Brown, one of six heirs to the property.

Plans call for a road from Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to the new St. Helena library and Beaufort Jasper Hampton Comprehensive Health Services center. That road needs to pass through the Browns' land, county staff says.

But the family doesn't want to sell.

Brown said his father, Tom, bought the 8 to 10 acres after returning from World War II, operated several businesses there and also farmed it. Arnold and his siblings grew up in a house there during the 1960s and early 1970s.

"Eight of us grew up in that house," Brown said. "I don't know how we did it -- three bedrooms, one bath."

The six surviving siblings, Brown said, would like to keep the property in the family indefinitely and let their children and grandchildren use it.

County Council members were told during a Community Services Committee meeting April 18 that nearby wetlands and a national historic district prevent other options.

"It's full of difficult legal and engineering principles," said county attorney Lad Howell. "Those things have been fully vetted. If we didn't have to go through the Brown property, trust me, we would not."

Roland Gardner, CEO of Beaufort Jasper Hampton Comprehensive Health Services, said construction needs to move forward before a federal grant for the project expires in October.

"We have been at this from day one," he said. "We have tried every option that we have."

Brown contended in an April 5 letter to council that other road access points and sites exist. Moreover, he wrote, the family has not received requested information, such as engineering plans or an environmental study.

The committee voted unanimously to approve a resolution authorizing condemnation, though Councilman Steve Baer described eminent domain as "an extreme last resort" and said he may vote against its use Monday, when the full council considers the item.

Councilwoman Laura Von Harten argued that the use of eminent domain is justified.

"It's a rare thing, and it should be rare," Von Harten said. "But in this case, with the health center and the library that we've worked so hard to get, we need to move forward."

Councilman Bill McBride, who represents St. Helena Island, agreed and said "sometimes you have to make these decisions that are right for the community."

Brown said his siblings are now spread across the globe, so they will not be present for council's vote Monday. But he doesn't expect that the resolution, if approved, will be the last word on the matter.

"Based on what our attorney has seen and heard so far," he said, "it's not the end."