Watson Hill has new owners who aren't talking and George McDaniel is nervous. While all appears quiet, McDaniel, the executive director of neighboring Drayton Hall, suspects it's really "like a duck swimming across water. It may not look like it's doing much, but beneath the surface there is a lot going on."
A lot has been going on in terms of Watson Hill over the past five years, spurred by the sale of the 6,600-acre site by longtime owner MeadWestvaco. That sale resulted in a volatile, high density development plan that would have overwhelmed the scenic old plantation highway and sparked a court-contested annexation leap across the Ashley River by the city of North Charleston. Subsequent multiple changes in ownership culminated in a foreclosure and a recent public auction that put the property in the hands of the mortgage holder, Iowa-based Principal Commercial Acceptance.
Last week, a PCA spokesperson would only say "there has been lots of interest, but there's nothing to discuss."
McDaniel would have been among those celebrating had the successful bidder been MeadWestvaco Corp. More than ever, MeadWestvaco's resumption of ownership seems the best solution not only to neighboring, nationally significant historic properties but leaders of the conservation community who generally have given high marks to the company's subsequent plans to both conserve and develop a 70,000-acre tract known as East Edisto. McDaniel still has his fingers crossed that MeadWestvaco and other conservation buyers can come together and take Watson Hill "off the threat list." The right buyer, he said, could fold Watson Hill into the East Edisto plan and have it serve as a strategic gateway. That, he said, "would be golden for the entire region." He is prepared to do anything he can to help MeadWestvaco acquire the property including writing supportive letters.
Such leading conservationists as Charles Lane also are now pinning their hopes on MeadWestvaco. Lane, the leader of a group of potential conservation buyers, said he was among those told by the lender's attorney that the property likely could be bought at the public auction in the $18-22 million price range. That information, he said, is what gave MeadWestvaco reason to believe that its $19.5 million bid would be successful. But the lender, who had a court-established debt of $29.9 million, including $27 million in principal, countered with a $20 million bid and now has title to the property. Few believe, however, that PCA has any interest in developing the land and the speculation is that in today's real estate market the land still can be obtained for far less than the $29 million figure.
Lane said it is his understanding that MeadWestvaco is still talking with the owners and pursuing the property. Any involvement of his group, he said, would be through MeadWestvaco. "There is no reason to compete with them. They are committed to doing the right thing with the property," he said. At the moment, MeadWestvaco's Ken Seeger, president of community development and land management, says there's nothing specific to report. He did say, however, that he is optimistic about a successful outcome for Watson Hill.
There are other reasons those who want limited development in the Ashley River historic district are optimistic. McDaniel says it should now be clear that if the wrong buyer tries to develop the land "we will continue to fight tooth and nail and tie it up just like earlier buyers were." Indeed, the Coastal Conservation League continues to finance a lawsuit against the North Charleston annexation. Until it is resolved any government sanction of development plans for the Watson Hill tract is subject to challenge.
There's more. Coastal Conservation League Executive Director Dana Beach continues to point to such potential development roadblocks as the need for water and sewerage, which would require public input, not to mention the two-lane road system. "We are hopeful," he said, "to come up with something everybody can live with." If not, he noted, the new owners would be faced with "very adverse neighbors," not to mention the opposition of the larger community.
Absent a successful resolution by all the interested parties, he predicts it's a controversy journalists will still be writing about five years from now.
That's a safe bet.
Barbara S. Williams, editor emeritus of The Post and Courier, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.