KIAWAH ISLAND — There’s a new, disturbing twist in the battle over the wildlife-rich environs of Capt. Sam’s Spit.

The issue

WHAT HAPPENED: In 1994, the company that became Kiawah Development Partners turned over the deed to 4½ acres alongside today’s Beachwalker Park, giving it to the Kiawah Island Community Association as part of a larger quit claim of “common property” along the island beachfront.

WHAT NOW: KDP is suing KICA to have the property returned, saying it transferred the acreage “inadvertently and erroneously.” KICA has refused to turn over the deed.

WHAT IT MEANS: The acreage is along the path of a proposed route for an access road between the park’s parking lot and the beach, a road that KDP plans to build for a controversial development on Capt. Sam’s Spit. The deed dispute might put either the development plan or Beachwalker Park in jeopardy.

The developer who wants to build 50 homes across its exposed dune field is suing the island homeowners association to reclaim the deed to 41/2 acres that sit along the path of a proposed access road to the spit.

How the lawsuit is decided could derail plans for the development or put the fate of acclaimed Beachwalker Park further in jeopardy.

Kiawah Development Partners might have little choice but to drop plans or move the proposed road, which could impinge on current park facilities.

The acreage surrounds an old employees beach bathhouse; the access road is planned to follow the road that ran to the facility.

The Kiawah Island Community Association has refused KDP’s request to return the property, and some residents say they will fight to prevent it from being turned over.

Beachwalker is annually rated one of the best beach parks in the country, largely because of a secluded, scenic quality that includes the spit.

The spit is a narrow reach of land along the island’s western edge beyond the park. It’s a place where shorebirds flock and dolphins feed by driving bait fish onto the beach. It’s one of the few undeveloped barrier island spits that can be reached by land, and has been a natural destination getaway for islanders as well as visitors.

KDP is suing KICA to regain a deed to acreage that provides a route to the spit between the park’s parking lot and the beach. Kiawah Resort Associates, a company associated with KDP, contends in the suit that in a 1994 development agreement, the company “inadvertently and erroneously” turned over the property to KICA as part of a larger quit claim of common property along the beach.

KICA said it can’t return the deed without 75 percent approval in a community-wide vote.

That approval wouldn’t be assured. The community is sharply divided on developing the spit.

“It’s really hard for me to predict how a vote would go at this point,” said John Connolly, KICA board chairman. As to whether the board would ask for the vote, “we just don’t know at this point,” he said.

Kiawah Development Partners declined to comment because the lawsuit is pending.

At least a contingent of homeowners said development on the storm-vulnerable spit is foolhardy. The access road at one point would travel across a thin strip of land along a sea wall that KDP plans to build on the eroding Kiawah River bank.

Because KICA would take over maintenance of that road, the residents worry about the liability and repair costs, said Paul Feldman, of the Inlet Cove community located near Beachwalker Park.

There’s a similar, widespread sentiment about the deed, Feldman said. “What good reason would there be to give up an oceanfront asset worth millions of dollars? Frankly, many of us feel that if there’s any way we can stop this development, we will.”

The Inlet Cove community has joined a petition to have the S.C. Supreme Court rehear a recent case in which the court cleared the way for the sea wall to be built. Petition supporters received 119 signatures in a canvass of the 108 residences in the Inlet Cove community, Feldman said.

Development opponents and others who use Beachwalker Park have been concerned that the access road would be built along an emergency-vehicle easement through the current park parking lot, effectively forcing the park to be relocated or closed. The developers now say they plan to build the access road between the parking lot and the beach itself, through a swatch of maritime forest where a boardwalk now crosses. The disputed acreage is in that area.

Environmentalists and community groups have fought for two years to stop development on the spit, and the S.C. Environmental Law Project filed the Supreme Court petition on behalf of the Coastal Conservation League.

“When you deed property over to another party, that’s a pretty big deal. It’s hard to (legally) overcome. You really have to show why the court should grant relief,” said Amy Armstrong of the law project. “I would hope (KICA) would vigorously defend it.”

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