SUMMERVILLE — A legal battle over condemned property next to the historic Woodlands Mansion could result in a development deal bringing 250 to 275 high-end apartments to the area.
At issue is a small stretch of roadway the Town of Summerville has been trying to use the power of eminent domain to purchase as part of a project to extend Maple Street and alleviate traffic. The stretch sits on a 30-acre plot of land owned by Woodlands Village LLC — separate from the mansion ownership.
The LLC found the town's $865,000 offer for the roadway unreasonable, and the matter has been in litigation since November 2018. The case is set to go to trial Monday.
Mayor Wiley Johnson said Monday in an interview with The Post and Courier that an Augusta, Ga.-based development group called Southeastern had discussed buying the Woodlands Village land and donating the stretch of roadway to the town. That would be preferable, he said, as the town then wouldn't have to spend additional money to finalize the eminent domain process.
"If these other folks, the Southeastern developers, if they come in and buy the property, that would solve our problems with the lawsuit," Johnson said.
Should Southeastern ultimately acquire the land and build the apartments, county officials have raised concerns that they would butt up against the mansion property in addition to the properties of residents who live in nearby Gadsden Manor and along Parsons Road.
The mansion sits on 11 acres of land just off of Parsons Road and was built in 1906. Its history is rooted in Flowertown, where it served mostly as a home for the wealthy before it became a restaurant and event venue in more recent years.
The town, Johnson said, has asked Dorchester County Council to consider making the land part of a multi-county business park, an agreement between two or more counties that would exempt the area in question from property taxes in the name of economic development and incentivizing builders.
Town Council approved a resolution dated Oct. 30, which asks for Dorchester and either Berkeley or Charleston counties to approve the business park. Doing so would be a bit unusual, as multi-county business parks are not normally used for residential construction.
Johnson cautioned that the process is still in its earliest stages.
"I don’t know if it’s going to be acceptable to everyone yet," he said.
Dorchester County spokesperson Tiffany Norton said the county had received the request to explore approving the business park and it would be discussed during Council's executive session at its Nov. 18 meeting.
Southeastern developer and CEO Vic Mills said the company has been scoping out potential sites in Summerville for the apartments for years, and tried to purchase the land in question from Woodlands Village LLC three or four years ago.
The company has completed projects across the Southeast, including in downtown Charleston and Hilton Head Island.
Mills said his group's focus is on keeping the development low-density while also building high-quality residences. Current plans have building units only reaching two stories, and he said the apartments won't impact Woodlands Mansion or the ambiance around it.
"Given the low density, we’re able to provide a buffer between the Woodlands and our development, and if necessary we will build an attractive fence that would prevent any access to the Woodlands," Mills said.
While the land purchase isn't final, should Southeastern ultimately acquire it, Mills said the company has told Summerville officials it will donate the land for road improvement, and then would make a $1 million cash contribution to the town to help cover cost of improvements. Ultimately, they want to build between 250 and 275 units, with 10 to 11 units per acre, he said.
To be competitive, Mills said rent for a 900-1,000 square foot apartment with two bedrooms would be around $1,400 per month.
Several county council members, including Bill Hearn, whose district includes the land in question, have met with Mills about the potential land acquisition, Hearn said.
"They’ve done some very impressive projects," he said. "I think the proposal for this project is impressive, but I’m not crazy about the location."
Hearn's main concerns are for neighboring property owners, namely people who live down Parsons Road near the Summit subdivision. He is also concerned with how building new apartments would add to already-existing traffic concerns with Maple Street and in the greater Summerville area.
Also concerning, Hearn said, is that he doesn't believe residents who live in the Gadsden Manor area — who would be most closely affected by new apartments — have any idea the development is being considered.
"I don’t think they know this is coming. I don’t know if they know the full details of this," he said. "I would certainly be concerned about their input before we vote on this.”
Tom Limehouse, owner of Woodlands Mansion, in an Nov. 3 email sent to members of Dorchester County Council, Summerville Town Council and attorneys for the respective entities, wrote that he was worried about the motivations behind efforts to develop the land, though he did not say he was against it.
"I am concerned that the Town is hoping to use tax incentives for this developer to subsidize a 'circular' settlement of a pending condemnation action regarding the Maple Street extension," Limehouse wrote in the email obtained by The Post and Courier.
He also said moving too quickly on any development project could stop the public from having any input on the impacts to Woodlands Mansion and the Gadsden neighborhood.
Limehouse declined to comment beyond the contents of the email. He has been trying to sell Woodlands Mansion since October 2018 when he listed it for $6.95 million. The property was taken off the market this summer and is not listed for sale.