Nearly two decades after the state took a deep water site on Daniel Island from its owners, the 16-acre tract is a step closer to being returned to the owner’s heirs.

The picturesque site on Clouter Creek was seized from the trust of J. Bradley Peecksen in 1998 after a protracted battle with the State Ports Authority. The trust was paid about $324,000.

At the time, the SPA planned to build a new new marine cargo terminal complex on a 1,300-acre Daniel Island site cobbled together from various parcels, many taken by condemnation. Daniel Island was mostly undeveloped at the time.

The port's plans were scrapped after an outcry from residents and politicians who didn’t want the traffic, noise and pollution the terminal would bring.

Peecksen, a real estate investor who died in 1992, named Nolan Deden as a trustee of his estate, which he left to his wife, Christine N. Peecksen. When she died in 2000, it was passed to her children, Patricia Ann Honhorst and William Ellington Matthews, and other relatives.

Now Honhorst, Ellington, Diane Quinn, Louisa Salvo, Vashti P. Elliott, Alicia P. Arrendale and Patricia Darby are trying to reacquire the land, which sits off Clements Ferry Road in an area known at St. Thomas Parish. They've had plans to sell it for a few years. 

Their lengthy battle got a boost Tuesday when the court appointed Mount Pleasant lawyer Lisa Wolff Herbert to be a substitute trustee for the estate.

The beneficiaries and their lawyers declined to comment, but lawyers for the Ports Authority have questioned whether the trust even exists.

“This court’s opinion is, what difference does it make whether the trust exists or doesn’t exist?” said Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson. The land would be deeded to either the beneficiaries or the trust, he said, adding, “Make a determination of which way you want to go, do it and move on.”

Lawyers for both sides agreed to try to strike a compromise.

Claiming that the SPA couldn’t keep the property unless it was going to use it for a public purpose, many of the landowners sought to reclaim their property, and in 2009, the Legislature passed a law requiring that the former landowners get the right to repurchase at same price the owners were paid a decade earlier. The SPA was allowed to retain an easement for access to land it owned.

But the case for the Peecksen tract, which includes 14 acres of high land, became clouded because Deden died in February 2015.

The trust received a letter from the SPA in June 2015 offering to sell the land back and a purchase agreement two months later.

“They tendered a contract to a dead person who couldn’t sign it,” said Mark Mason, lawyer for individuals who are part of the trust.

Since October 2015, the trust has sought to have a substitute trustee appointed.

On Monday, a day before the scheduled hearing to appoint Herbert, the SPA filed a motion to intervene, saying that the trust ended when Peecksen’s wife died. Nicholson allowed the motion.

The Port Authority “wants to do the right thing, but within the confines of the statute,” said lawyer Laura Evans of Smith Moore Leatherwood. “The question is, does the trust exist?”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 843-937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.