James Island residents file lawsuit after legislative move prompts developer’s use of road
Editor’s note: This story in Monday’s paper was incomplete. This is the full story.
For the 31 years she has lived in her James Island community, Wendy Tripp and her husband have learned to cope with traffic.
They’ve dealt with cars zooming through Harbor Woods to reach area schools. They’ve grown accustomed to their neighborhood being used as a shortcut for commuters between Fort Johnson and Harbor View roads.
But during that time, the Tripps and their neighbors also have fought back.
In 1986, they successfully urged state politicians to enact a law that closed the narrow, dirt-surfaced portion of Harbortowne Road that leads into 15 acres of undeveloped land. They hoped the measure would stop their pains from worsening if the landowner decided to build homes there.
That’s why they’re befuddled by a legislative maneuver last year that permitted developers to use the road and recently clear the tract for a new, 38-house phase of Harbor Woods.
Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, was permitted to push through a “concurrent resolution,” a measure typically reserved for honoring South Carolinians’ achievements, without approval from the full General Assembly and the governor.
Tripp, a resident of Seafarer Way, which intersects with Harbortowne Road, said the move shouldn’t trump a state law that has been on the books for 27 years.
“We don’t mind what they build there,” Tripp said. “But they have to find another entrance. That’s the law, but nobody seems to care.”
This month, Tripp and 24 other residents sued the landowner, the developer and the S.C. Department of Transportation in hopes of stopping the road from being used as the new community’s entrance. A hearing is expected soon.
Their argument is rooted in the 1986 law they say overrules the Limehouse resolution and Charleston city officials’ approval of the development.
After initially saying that he hadn’t sponsored the resolution, Limehouse recalled that Michael Washburn, the landowner, had approached him last year and asked for a measure that would grant him access to the property via Harbortowne Road.
Limehouse said he researched the issue and couldn’t find a reason that the 1986 law existed. He dubbed the statute an “oversight,” so he drafted the resolution, he said.
He said Washburn did not mention plans to build new homes on the property. Limehouse said he simply wanted to restore a landowner’s right to enter the property.
The parcel’s owner is listed on county records as Harbor Woods LLC.
“The owner didn’t have access to it. The city was OK with it,” Limehouse said. “Those were the things told to us. That’s why it was done. ... To develop or not to develop was not part of that process.”
A message left on Washburn’s cellphone was not returned. The developer, D.R. Horton of Mount Pleasant, also could not be reached.
For years, the paved portion of Harbortowne Road ended at Regatta Road, where it turned into a narrow, dirt- and grass-covered path. Trees and shrubs took over, making it just wide enough for a small car.
Last week, bulldozers, front-end loaders, graders and excavators choked the now-wider dirt road. Trees had been cleared. Pipes stuck up from the muddy ground.
Under a concept plan that the Charleston Planning Commission approved in January, that part of Harbortowne Road will be paved. It would be the lone access point for the new homes.
Developers indicated that a large pond would separate the new community’s east side from Quail Drive, where the plan’s critics think the new access point should be. The city’s James Island Recreation Complex is to the north. A wetland and James Island Charter High School are to the south.
Because The Post and Courier’s attempts to contact project officials were not successful, it’s unknown whether any other entrance options were possible.
By introducing a bill in March 2012, Limehouse first tried to repeal the 1986 law that had been championed by James Island Republican Woody Aydlette. Besides closing the unpaved portion of Harbortowne Road, the law added it and two other community roads to the state highway system.
Limehouse’s bill was referred to a committee, from which it never emerged.
The next month, Limehouse sponsored the concurrent resolution, H. 5168. Members of the Charleston delegation were added as co-sponsors.
Before recalling that he had championed the measure, Limehouse said he thought that Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, had been its primary sponsor. But McCoy said he knew nothing about the resolution until more recently, when he heard from disgruntled residents.
McCoy didn’t know whether adding sponsors without consent was a common practice in the General Assembly, he said. But concurrent resolutions typically are less controversial, he added.
One of the other resolutions that Limehouse sponsored during the same session honored WTMA radio personality Rocky Disabato and proclaimed Aug. 31, 2011, “Rocky D Day.”
His resolution about Harbortowne Road was swiftly adopted by the S.C. House, and a week later by the Senate in May 2012. Those approvals didn’t require roll-call votes, McCoy said.
A developer had pleaded with McCoy to sponsor legislation, but McCoy said he denied the request. The ensuing resolution got through without his input, but McCoy said he later denounced it in the legislature’s official record.
Since then, McCoy said, he has attended two town hall meetings about the issue and has taken residents’ side in the dispute.
“Something went wrong,” said McCoy, who is an attorney. “But you learn something new every day. ... Now, I just want the law to be followed.”
His knowledge of that area of the statutes, McCoy said, wasn’t thorough, so he asked S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office for an opinion about whether a resolution could repeal the 1986 law.
In August, Assistant Attorney General Anita Smith Fair said a court would likely rule against the resolution. It had not gone through the typical procedures of a bill, Fair wrote, in order to become law.
Tripp and the other Harbor Woods residents filed their lawsuit in early November. For them, it was a last-ditch move after Tripp said developers and city officials declined over the past several years to heed their arguments citing the 1986 law.
Their attorney, David Aylor of Charleston, wrote in the filing that the landowner was willfully disobeying the law. The suit asks for monetary damages that such a breach might cause and for an injunction to halt the road’s use.
Aylor told The Post and Courier that a judge could hold a hearing in the case as soon as this week.
“This isn’t about a big, bad development,” Aylor said. “It’s about that road and the anxiety its use has created.”
Charleston County Councilman Joe Qualey, a James Island resident and one of the local politicians who have joined the cause, said normal procedures should have been followed if the law is to be changed.
“It is a quite peaceful neighborhood,” Qualey said. “People there expected that road to be closed forever.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or Twitter.com/offlede.