Buzz abounds over Kiawah settlement Rumors ‘rampant’ over details of lawsuit accord

Speculation on Kiawah Island centers around the future of Kiawah Partners, the master developer of the 10,000-acre oceanfront community. Pictured is an aerial view of the south end of the island.

The buzz that Bill Gates and other billionaires had booked the entire Sanctuary hotel for a conference last week has given way to a different kind of speculation on Kiawah Island.

It centers around the future of Kiawah Partners, the master developer of the 10,000-acre oceanfront community and the owner of valuable properties in South Carolina, Ireland and the Caribbean.

The company acknowledges the chatter, but it won’t discuss the substance of the scuttlebutt.

“There are a lot of rumors around,” said Bill Hindman, public relations consultant for Kiawah Partners. “They are rampant.”

The source of the speculation can be traced to a family feud that culminated in a 2012 lawsuit. The dispute, which threatened to break up the prominent luxury developer, was settled in December.

Hindman said it took time, but the details of that confidential agreement are now being finalized.

“It’s a fairly complicated enterprise,” he said Monday.

Barring any last-minute hitches, Hindman said he has been told by lawyers that an update could be announced in the next two to three weeks, which may explain the intensifying buzz.

“The fact of the matter is, at this moment in time, there is a confidential settlement ... regarding the ownership of Kiawah Partners,” he said. “The details — and the devil is always in the details — are still being worked out. We cannot comment further at this time.”

The dispute was a high-stakes fight over control of vast real estate holdings that are likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The two key figures were Leonard Long, a former Kiawah Partners executive vice president, and his first cousin Buddy Darby, who is president of the firm. They had a falling out, and the lawsuit followed in June.

It was filed by a group of partnerships, trusts and individuals who were minority owners in real estate ventures led by Darby. They asked that the assets of those businesses be dissolved and for the properties to be either divided up or sold.

All of the plaintiffs and defendants are related to the late J.C. Long, whose real estate empire included the Isle of Palms and numerous subdivisions and commercial properties.

The lawsuit alleged that Darby had tried to “squeeze” the smaller partners out of their ownership stakes in what were called “the Kiawah entities.”

The complaint also suggested the minority partners objected to investments Darby was spearheading beyond Kiawah. Kiawah Partners owns the money-losing Doonbeg golf resort in Ireland and the proposed 2,500-acre Christophe Harbour development on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts.

Darby and Long were part of the group that acquired most of Kiawah in 1988 for $105 million. In the years that followed, the island was developed into a hugely successful high-end tourist and vacation-home destination.

Real estate professionals are anticipating a sale of at least some of the company’s properties as part of the settlement terms. Kiawah Partners reiterated Tuesday that it cannot comment. Attorney Matthew Richardson, who represents the family members who filed the lawsuit, said he could not discuss the case,

Kiawah Mayor Charles Lipuma acknowledged he’s heard idle talk about the future of Kiawah Partners, but he said he hasn’t been notified about what’s next for the firm, which has a development agreement with the town.

“Sometimes there are rumors that go around that aren’t well-founded,” Lipuma said Tuesday.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.