County taking more legal action against Church Creek Plaza

Trash collects on top of a drain in the parking lot of Church Creek Plaza in front of the only retail space still open, Feng Lin Chinese Food. Charleston County has filed another lawsuit against the mall's owner, Morton Scholnick of Troy, Mich., in a effort to get him to clean up the place neighbors call an "eyesore."

When Michelle Nemeth and her husband moved into their dream home on Church Creek in West Ashley nine years ago, the strip mall next door was far from thriving, but it had a grocery store, a video store and a few fast-food restaurants.

But Church Creek Plaza, at the corner of S.C. Highway 61 and Parsonage Road, deteriorated dramatically over the past five years, she said. Conditions have become intolerable, and the couple has put their house up for sale.

The mall now is abandoned except for a tiny Chinese carry-out restaurant. Shattered glass from broken windows litters the ground, trash is strewn about, and chest-high weeds rise around the parking lot of crumbling asphalt.

Charleston County in January was scheduled to take the owner, Morton Scholnick from Troy, Mich., to magistrate court to get him to clean up the property. But Scholnick, who has health problems, got the matter delayed repeatedly and the property has continued to languish, said County Councilwoman Colleen Condon, who represents the area. The county on July 25 filed another lawsuit in circuit court, which has more authority, she said. She hopes the move is the first step in a process that could lead to the strip mall being torn down.

Scholnick and his Charleston lawyer, Richard Rosen, did not return repeated calls for comment.

The lawsuit, filed against Church Creek Plaza and Scholnick, asks the court to order Scholnick to clean up his property and make it safe and secure, according to the county's legal department. It also asks the court to order Scholnick to obtain a Charleston County business license and to pay business license fees for the years he operated without such a license; and to pay penalties of $1,000 a year for each year he was not registered with the S.C. Secretary of State.

Condon said Scholnick must respond to the lawsuit by Sept. 2.

If the county prevails, she said, it will, for the first time be able to enter the building to abate the problems that have been deemed a public nuisance. That could include having the building torn down, she said. "I don't believe (Scholnick) will ever restore that building to an acceptable safe level and maintain it that way," she said.

"The county doesn't make a habit of taking property and it shouldn't," Condon said. "But this is a case of repeated, flagrant non-compliance."

If the strip mall were in the city of Charleston, officials could clean it up and place a lien against the out-of-state owner for the cost. But it falls in an unincorporated part of Charleston County, in a "doughnut hole" surrounded by city property. Under state law, the county doesn't have the right to place a lien.

Condon said that Scholnick made some minor improvements, such as cutting back the weeds, in the early part of the year, after the first lawsuit was filed. But he didn't follow through, and the property is in no better condition today than it was at the end of January.

She also said she's been pressuring county staffers to do more to address the problems at Church Creek Plaza. Since the beginning of February, she said, "I requested more than 20 times that planning and compliance staff visit the site and write more citations if that was warranted."

But that didn't happen.

County spokesman Shawn Smetana said that only one citation has been written since Feb. 1.

Seeing the building come down would be a relief to Nemeth and many West Ashley residents who have complained regularly to county officials, and shared information and vented their feelings on a West Ashley Facebook page.

"It has no use, no activity," Nemeth said of the mall. "It's an eyesore and we are so disgusted driving by several times every day."

Pam Morgan, who also drives past the Church Creek Plaza every day on her way home, said the mall sits on S.C. 61, which tourists pass as they drive to the historic plantations. "It's embarrassing," she said.

She appreciates Condon's relentless efforts to make the situation better, she said. "She's a bulldog."

But Morgan is frustrated by the lack of progress. "I can't believe there wasn't some way to get some sort of agreement earlier on. The sheer stubbornness of that man is absolutely beyond me."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.