Politics & Government

Beaufort Co. spent millions on a public waterfront park. Will a dispute keep you out?

Beaufort’s pristine Whitehall will be developed. Here’s what will be preserved

A developer has offered Beaufort County two options for a public park at Whitehall on Lady's Island. Beaufort County Council approved the purchase in a unanimous vote on Sept. 24, 2018.
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A developer has offered Beaufort County two options for a public park at Whitehall on Lady's Island. Beaufort County Council approved the purchase in a unanimous vote on Sept. 24, 2018.

A dispute between Beaufort County and developers over terms of a deal for a public park on Lady’s Island could land in court and affect how visitors access the waterfront property.

Beaufort County bought 9.72 acres at Whitehall, a vacant 20-acre property across from downtown Beaufort, from developers Whitehall Point Holdings LLC to preserve as a public park in October. The $5.45-million purchase price included $4.37 million from the taxpayer-funded county Rural and Critical Lands program.

Developers plan to build a mix of commercial and residential building on the remaining 10 acres.

Three months after the sale closed, the county voided parts of the agreement, saying some documents related to the sale were filed incorrectly and the terms were never agreed to by County Council. An easement agreement was recorded with the county Register of Deeds but didn’t include a signature page for the county.

Developers said via an attorney the documents are valid and changes will require them to re-engineer plans, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. They threatened legal action if the agreement isn’t recognized.

County attorney Tom Keaveny wrote in a notice voiding the easement filed Jan. 25 that the document had been filed in error.

Bill Harvey, an attorney for the developers, said in an email to County Council last week that Keaveny had directed the county’s closing attorney to file the document over objections from county staff over the missing signature.

A phone message seeking comment from Keaveny on Wednesday wasn’t returned. He declined to comment on the agreement last week, citing potential legal action.

County Council member Paul Sommervile said Wednesday the body only approved the sale and that the easement requires separate approval, with multiple council votes and a public hearing.

Harvey said the document was required to close the deal, and if separate approval was required, it was the county’s responsibility to ensure that happened.

Without the agreement, a proposed drainage area on the park property that was to be shared with the private development will now have to be included as part of the development, Harvey said, costing the developers engineering costs and lost property value.

How the public will access the new park property is unclear if the agreement is invalid, said Harvey.

“The county recorded the document and now they’re trying to take advantage of the fact they claim they didn’t sign the easement agreement,” Harvey said .”But they recorded it and the closing — the $5.5 million closing — would not have occurred without that document. They told my client the document had been recorded and we closed based upon that representation.”

In addition to questions about drainage issues, the agreement creates shared access points to Whitehall from Sea Island Parkway and Meridian Road.

In a separate development agreement filed with the sale and now disputed by the county, Whitehall Point developer Sam Levin agreed to provide and pay for public parking at the new park, park design and engineering and storm drainage on the park property.

Harvey said storm drainage would now have to be included between two residential lots on the private development and that changing entry access because of the nullified agreement would cause developers to lose a commercial building planned for the property. In his letter, he indicated legal action was possible if county policymakers don’t recognize the original agreement as filed.

Harvey asked to meet with council members behind closed doors Monday, a request interim county administrator John Weaver denied in an email to Harvey last week. Council instead received a legal briefing from county administrators.

“For whatever it is worth, I have known Tom Keaveny for almost three decades and believe him to be a competent attorney with high ethical standards,” Weaver wrote in the email provided by Harvey.

Developers plan to build on the remaining 10 acres of the property, including an independent living facility, commercial business along Sea Island Parkway and cottage sites.

The almost 10-acre park received broad public support from the time the deal was announced last summer. A grassroots group of volunteers organized to lobby local representatives and offer to help maintain the park.

Park supporters have begun planning beautification projects for the park and are anxious to get started, said Paul Butare, with Friends of Whitehall Park. He said he can’t see access ever being restricted after the county invested millions in the park.

“We just need to get going on this thing and do what everybody was promised, have a park people can enjoy and soon — not two years from now,” Butare said. “It’s important we just do what we all said we were going to do.”

Stephen Fastenau covers northern Beaufort County as a reporter for The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where he has worked since 2010 and been recognized with state and national awards. He studied journalism and political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lives in Beaufort.
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