Special Reports

HEIR PRESSURE: Beaufort County Gullah families struggle to hang onto ancestral land

Inez Miller: St. Helena Island heirs property owner

St. Helena Island heirs property owner Inez Miller describes her love for the land and her family's plans to join the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation's Sustainable Forestry Program, in which property owners can grow and cut trees to sell f
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St. Helena Island heirs property owner Inez Miller describes her love for the land and her family's plans to join the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation's Sustainable Forestry Program, in which property owners can grow and cut trees to sell f

A resilient group of families has managed to hang onto some of Beaufort County's most pristine and valuable land since the end of slavery.

These hundreds of descendants of freed slaves and preservers of Gullah-Geechee culture have done so in spite of racial strife, financial downturns and surrounding rapid development. And they've done it without wills or deeds, passing down the land by word of mouth.

But new pressures are mounting and old ones are re-emerging, making it more difficult for them to hang onto the land they hold so dear.

Descendants and their advocates point to recent Beaufort County delinquent-tax sales as proof of their plight, where bidders who once stepped aside when heirs' property came up for auction now outbid heirs. Others see it in their own families as distant relatives who live out of state force sales through the courts. And the age-old problem persists of families losing their land because they cannot afford to pay the taxes.

Hanging onto the ancestral land will only get more difficult, predict advocates for the families. As the local real estate market shakes off the remnants of the Great Recession, a wave of investors in search of land deals are expected to return to the scene. Heirs' property represents some of the last developable tracts on Hilton Head Island.


On the auction block
  • About 40 heirs' properties will be included in Monday's Beaufort County Delinquent Tax Sale. Advocates for the families are asking that other bidders not bid on the ancestral land.
  • In the last few decades, heirs' property has been gobbled up by developers. Fewer than 200 acres of it remain on Hilton Head Island, according to estimates.
  • The highest bidders at Monday's tax sale won't necessarily get to keep the land. Heirs will still have a year to pay the owed taxes and fees.

"We had a little reprieve there when development slowed down (during the recession)," said Tish Lynn, resource development coordinator for the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation, a nonprofit that helps heirs get clear title to their land.

As development increases, property values rise and so do taxes. That will lead to loss of heirs' property if families don't start now to take the steps needed to protect their land, Lynn says.

"Most people don't realize how easy it is to lose it," she said.

And when it goes, a piece of family history -- and Beaufort County history -- goes with it.

Anita Singleton-Prather of St. Helena Island, who performs shows with Gullah Kinfolk as the character Aunt Pearlie Sue, recalls the pain of losing some of her family's land in Burton at the 2010 tax sale.

Her daughter and son-in-law and their four children had fallen on hard times and moved in with her. The cold winter brought higher heating bills; the children needed medicine; her daughter got sick. The costs of keeping the family going left nothing to pay the $1,800 in taxes and penalties on the property.

"It was just too much," she said. "I hated that I had to let it go, but it was just too stressful."

 

MORE BIDDERS, LESS CHANCE FOR HEIRS

Darron Meares with Meares Auctions
Darron Meares with Meares Auctions acknowledges a bid during the Beaufort County Delinquent Tax Auction at Charles Lind Brown Activity Center in Beaufort in this file photo from 2014. File Staff photo

Singleton-Prather is far from the only one who has regretfully sold family land.

While no firm trend data exist, all agree that much of the heirs' property in Beaufort County, especially the waterfront land, has been gobbled up by development.

In 1995, about 3,500 acres were owned by native islanders and blacks on Hilton Head Island's north end, according to a study by the American Institute of Architects. As of October 2014, only about 750 acres of native-islander owned land is left, estimates Alex Brown, town planning commission chairman whose family owns heirs' property.

"The pressure is definitely on," Brown says. "The dirt on Hilton Head is very, very valuable ... and it doesn't matter who it belongs to."

Countywide, about 3,400 acres of heirs' property are left as of 2012, according to the heirs' center. Of that amount, 189 acres are on Hilton Head Island.

Until just a couple of years ago, the preservation of heirs' property was such a concern that bidders at the county's annual delinquent-tax sale would step aside. Heirs could then bid the minimum to keep the land in family hands and start the process toward clearing the title. Successful heirs' bidding would be greeted with cheers, and those who broke the informal understanding would face the audience's wrath.

But at the 2013 and 2014 auctions, some heirs' property owners were outbid on their land, as real estate investors ignored pleas to not bid.

"The realtors didn't pay any attention to that and just kept right on bidding," recalls Inez Miller, who attended last year's tax sale. "Five years ago, they would at least respect you."

At times, the exchanges became heated. Miller saw two men arguing face-to-face, and bystanders intervened.

Beaufort County Treasurer Maria Walls saw one heir get overbid and an argument break out with the winning bidder. At one point, officials motioned for deputies to come over, and the winning bidder left.

"It's been a courtesy in Beaufort County as long as I can remember," Walls said. But she adds, "It's never been a rule, only a courtesy."

On Monday, the county will hold its 2015 tax sale. County officials and heirs have their fingers crossed that bidders will follow the longtime tradition.

Rodell Lawrence, executive director of the Penn Center, is scheduled to speak at the beginning of the auction to remind bidders of the informal agreement.

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The Treasurer's Office can't stop bidding in such cases, by state law. Walls suspects most of the bidders against heirs are from outside the area and don't know the history.

Since 2012, more bidders are coming to the tax sales to vie for fewer properties, making the auctions more competitive.

In 2012, 191 bidders bought a total of 1,043 properties, according to the Treasurer's Office. That compares to 278 bidders in 2013 buying 897 properties, and 242 bidders last year, with 808 properties sold.

Some heirs have seen the tax sale as a way to clear title to the land. But that's increasingly becoming a risky proposition as the number of bidders rise.

Allowing a property to hit the tax sale also leads to financial penalties, and owners have to pay interest to the winning bidder. They have one year from the auction to redeem the property, but will lose it if they can't pay all they owe.

Even if an heir or someone else buys the property at the tax sale, there could be more trouble ahead. That's because a tax-sale deed doesn't guarantee clear title.

"If it's heirs' property before the sale, it's heirs' property after the sale," says Thomas Mikell, a Beaufort lawyer who estimates he's handled about 500 heirs' property cases during his career.

That means heirs can come out to contest the sale and claim their rights to the land.

For the same reason, lawsuits can also follow from buying a percentage of heirs' property if other heirs can make a claim to the land.

Hope Watson, a lawyer for the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation in Charleston, put it bluntly at a meeting last month with heirs' property owners on St. Helena Island.

"If you're buying heirs' property," she said, "you're buying a lawsuit."

Some developers are willing to take that chance. Others sometimes don't know what they're getting into.

A BITTER FIGHT

Real estate investor Jesse Gantt Jr. learned about the legal entanglements the hard way.

About nine years ago, he signed a contract for an acre of waterfront land on St. Helena Island. An ensuing legal fight between him and heirs dragged on for five years, ending with an auction ordered by the court in which he outbid heirs whose homes surrounded the property.

"It was a bitter fight," Gantt recently recalled. "I started running into problems with heirs accusing me of stealing."

But Gantt didn't see it that way.

"I'm a businessman," he says. "I don't consider it stealing. Folks have the right to buy property."

Over time, he said, some of the heirs have become friends, and he allows them access to the water from his land for crabbing and fishing. He has not developed the property and said he is in no hurry to sell it.

Gantt, who has since developed an appreciation for the Sea Islands' culture and even co-authored "The Ultimate Gullah Cookbook," has helped various owners of heirs' property who are in tax trouble challenge the property valuations with the county Assessor's Office.

And he's learned a lesson.

"If heirs are complaining," he says, "that's something you need to take a look at."

HOW $375 BECOMES $18 MILLION

There are other types of legal troubles that can lead to years of fighting among family members.

In 1897 and 1906, Dennis Allen bought a combined 38 acres along Broad Creek on Hilton Head Island for $375.

Today, that property is listed for sale for $18 million. Backing up to Indigo Run from 6 Allen Road, it is described in the real estate listing "as the biggest parcel of land left on Broad Creek."

But like so much of heirs property, there's a long and complicated history behind the for-sale sign.

Trouble started in 2009 when a distant relative filed a lawsuit to try to obtain a portion of the family land.

Since then, the case has involved about 75 heirs, five lawyers and three lawsuits, two of which have been dismissed.

Some heirs live on the land and have opposed its sale in court filings. Other heirs have not wanted to see it sold. But the years of squabbling eventually took its toll, and a decision was made to put it on the market four years ago. Listed as heirs' property, any offer is subject to agreement among the co-owners, said Taiwan Scott, the property's real estate agent.

Neither the heirs involved nor Scott knows exactly where the remaining lawsuit or the property's future stand. He said the court would like to see a relocation plan for heirs still on the property.

"Everybody has their own opinion about what should happen," Scott said.

When he was called to list the property, one thing became apparent, he said. "A lot of things were going on that the family didn't know anything about."

Marquetta Goodwine, also known as Queen Quet of the Gullah-Geechee Nation, recalls the feeling she had when finding out a lawsuit had been filed by a relative to try to force a partition sale of their family land on St. Helena Island.

"It was one of the most horrible things I have had to deal with," she said. "It led family members to distrust one another."

Eventually, though, the family was able to settle matters before going to court, and kept the property.

"Your best bet is to always sit down with your family," she said.

PAINFUL LOSS

Heirs can take steps to protect their property by working within their family to clear the title or at least keep in constant communication to avoid surprises.

That can be difficult though as more generations come along, and the family tree sprouts branches.

The title-clearing process can also be costly and time-consuming. The Center for Heirs' Property Preservation in Charleston provides title-clearing and other services for free in the Lowcountry, but only for those who meet income eligibility requirements.

The tax burden also weighs heavily on some heirs who take care of the bills and have trouble tracking down relatives who may be spread out across the country. Some who pay the taxes and live on the land may not actually be heirs, and therefore have no claim to the property.

And simply the cost of property taxes can become too high for some to bear.

Singleton-Prather says she knows the owner of the 1.4 acres in Burton she lost at the county tax sale and hopes to buy it back one day.

She would like for it to eventually go to her eldest granddaughter, as her mother intended.

"The fact that I can get it back is a big hope for me," she said.

 

Follow city editor Don McLoud at twitter.com/IPBG_Don.

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