Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

Editorial: Despite a win, SC heirs’ properties still threatened

Derrick Williams and Terry Williams_02.JPG (copy)

Derrick and Terry Williams finalized their purchase of about 14 acres of heirs' property to be developed into The Mount Pleasant Racquet Club. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

It’s no surprise a posh tennis club is planned along U.S. Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant on 14 acres across from the Charleston Fun Park and a KOA campground. It’s prime property ripe for development. What’s remarkable is that 144 heirs to the property were able to come together, clear the deed and strike a fair deal for the land purchased by Cain Bryan in 1875.

For many years, real estate developers have sometimes used a variety of deceptive means to scoop up parcels piece-by-piece to assemble land for golf courses, resorts or housing tracts. But that’s changing thanks to recent legislation and the efforts of nonprofits such as the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, which works with property owners to clear up deeds and preserve properties or get them ready for sale.

Heirs’ property is land handed down through families, often with no formal deed or will, with plots divided among family branches. According to a report by ProPublica and The New Yorker, about a third of all black-owned land in the South is heirs’ property amounting to roughly 3.5 million acres valued at $28 billion.

In South Carolina, heirs’ properties account for an estimated 108,000 acres in the 15 counties served by the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation. Legally cloudy or nonexistent deeds and differences among heirs make the original property nearly impossible to sell intact. But the land has been vulnerable to savvy buyers able to secure smaller parcels, then compel the sale of the larger tract through a partition sale.

The $6.7 million transaction finalized in Mount Pleasant in late June, however, represents a welcome change in how deals involving heirs’ properties are being done.

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Two earlier deals for large chunks of the property, one with a national homebuilder and the other with a real estate investment group, had fallen through in recent years, The Post and Courier’s David Slade reported. Then, Boston-born Derrick Williams approached the Bryan heirs and was able to work with the various groups of family members. John Dodds III, the local attorney who helped sort out the deed and assemble the 14 acres, also deserves credit.

By contrast, six families in Cainhoy were evicted from a 17-acre heirs’ property last year as a result of a partition sale. Though not all of the heirs wanted the land sold, one of the heirs was able to successfully petition a court to force the sale of the entire tract and have the proceeds divided up.

Such sales point to a need for state lawmakers to consider further protections such as a legal timeout that would allow extended families to settle differences while staving off an unwanted sale.

Under the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, judges have discretion to order the land to be divided or sold, but they usually opt for selling the entire tract, according to a Texas A&M law professor who helped write the federal law. It was adopted in South Carolina in 2016 and renamed in honor of the late Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney, who had been a strong advocate for protecting heirs’ property.

Obviously, sorting out property rights among heirs regarding land purchased 100 years ago or more can be time-consuming and expensive. S.C. lawmakers should explore ways to give heirs and their land additional special considerations so we have more outcomes like the Cain Bryan sale.

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