Couple sue farmers to keep cows off land

Cocoa, a donkey that is among the livestock roaming the Legares’ farm on Johns Island, approaches Thomas Legare in hopes of a treat.

JOHNS ISLAND -- Hoping for a treat, Cocoa the donkey runs toward Thomas Legare's car. Legare is driving slowly down the dirt road that bisects his family's farm.

He stops and pets Cocoa, one of the many donkeys, horses, cows and pigs that live on the 300-acre farm off River Road, where his family has raised livestock since the 1830s.

Legare and his sisters Helen Legare-Floyd and Linda Legare Berry now run the farm on the Stono River, which sits on a peninsula.

A legal battle is brewing between the Legares and the Hughes family, which owns a landlocked, 1-acre, waterfront lot on the tip of the peninsula. And it highlights the clash between agriculture and development on the largely rural island.

Headed to court

William and Frances Beth Hughes, who must drive across the Legares' pasture to get to their home, have sued the Legares hoping to force them to better maintain the dirt road, build fences along both sides and corral all their livestock so the animals don't wander onto the road or their property.

The Hugheses in 2005 purchased one of four waterfront lots on the peninsula, all of which were once owned by members of the Legare family. Three of the lots eventually were sold to people outside the family.

Helen Legare-Floyd said the farm provides a great life, but not a lot of profit. The Hugheses are asking for more than 10,000 feet of fencing, which would cost about $50,000, Legare-Floyd said. The family simply can't afford that.

"If we lose any part of this lawsuit, it will bankrupt us," she said.

And Linda Legare Berry said she doesn't think it falls to her family to maintain the road to the Hugheses' standards, but only to give them access to their property. But even though it's not required, the Legares do maintain the road, she said. It's a perfectly serviceable country road, one family members use every day, she said.

And if a cow is lying in the middle of the road, all anybody has to do is beep their horn. It will move, she said.

The Legares have hired attorney Cynthia O'Dell to represent them, but they have decided to speak publicly on their own behalf to save on legal fees.

Joe Qualey, a lawyer who represents the Hugheses, said his clients didn't want to take legal action, but the situation got out of hand.

"They're just not controlling their animals," Qualey said of the Legares. "The animals are fearless. They don't fear cars."

Animals everywhere

Thomas Legare said the Hugheses knew the property sat at the edge of a pasture when they purchased it. Now, they are expecting a farming operation to change to accommodate them.

"You don't move to the country and try to turn it into the city," he said.

When the Legares look down the dirt road and across the pasture, they see a bucolic scene that represents their treasured, rural way of life. They also see food being produced locally, which they think is essential in America.

But the Hugheses see something entirely different: a bumpy road on which cows often nap, making it hard to travel, especially at night.

Qualey said the cows also wander into the Hughes family's yard. There's a fence around their property, but the cows come through the marsh and into their yard. At times, cows have even congregated on their pool deck.

"It looks like a Chick-fil-A commercial," Qualey said.

The cows also eat and damage their shrubbery, and defecate in their yard, Qualey said.

"Kids can't ride their bikes. It's unsanitary," he said.

The Legares said they were surprised when they learned in 2009 that the Hugheses were suing them. The lawsuit has dragged on because it was first filed against Thomas Legare and his mother, Mary Ann Legare, who died in 2010. The Hugheses amended the suit to include the Legare sisters after their mother's death.

The Legares said they expect the case to go before a judge in late January.

Linda Legare Berry said she's not sure how things got so bad between the two families. They were friendly at first. Their children played together. And Beth Hughes, who is a physician, became the Legares' family doctor.

They learned about the lawsuit when they received a letter from Roper St. Francis Hospital stating Beth Hughes could no longer be their doctor because she was suing them, Linda Legare Berry said.

"I'm mad about this, but more hurt."