Former Thomas Island landowners sue S.C State Ports Authority
Three lawsuits are pending against the South Carolina State Ports Authority (SPA) that allege it abused the power of eminent domain by taking private property on St. Thomas Island in 1998, which was never used for port activities, and failing to offer the land back as per a state mandate.
The lawsuits allege that the SPA “abused the power of eminent domain and violated the law by targeting racial minorities, heirs and those lacking the money, political power, and influence needed to rebuff attempted takings and illegal conduct, in a discriminatory manner.”
Plans to relocate the port to Daniel Island were proposed in 1998 and, as a result, the Ports Authority began the process of taking certain private properties for that public purpose, according to Mount Pleasant trial attorney Mark A. Mason, who filed the three lawsuits.
“The agency took these peoples’ property almost 20 years ago and did not use it for a public purpose,” said Mason.
In response to the proposed location change, residents were in an uproar, ultimately leading to the plans being scrapped. The problem was, the SPA had already taken the properties and the affected property owners wanted their land back, he added.
The landowners eventually lobbied the S.C. State Legislature, which in 2009 passed a law that required the SPA to give the properties back because the land was no longer being utilized for a public purpose. But it was not until 2016 that the Ports Authority began to act to give the land back, Mason explained.
“The Ports Authority began contacting these former landowners and most of the ones they offered the land back to accepted,” said Mason.
But for three local families—the Peecksens, Murphys and Jenkins— the Ports Authority never offered to give them their land back, claims Mason, leading to the recent filing of the lawsuits.
“There were three parcels of land—valuable, waterfront property—that the Ports Authority failed to follow the law to give these property owners their property back,” said Mason. “I’ve filed three lawsuits in which I am requesting that the court require the Ports Authority follow the law and offer these property owners their property back.”
What is particularly unjust, continued Mason, is the specific types of families these lawsuits involve.
“One of them involves a minority family,” said Mason. “All three of them involve a situation where it took the Ports Authority so long to do this, some of the family members have died, so their estates are involved. Basically, the lawsuit says that it’s illegal and that it’s outrageous that a state agency would willfully violate a clear statute that requires them to give this land back to the former landowners and for the SPA to have acted in a manner, that we claim, unfairly takes advantage of minorities and elderly people and estates of dead persons.”
With recent scandals and allegations surrounding South Carolina politics, Mason said that he is surprised that the SPA would so “blatantly violate the law.”
“Given the SPA’s recent entanglement in the investigation into how money and power are peddled in South Carolina politics, it is incredible that the SPA would blatantly violate the law and take advantage of the elderly and of minorities entitled to recover their property,’” he added. “A thorough investigation into the SPA’s handling of real estate transactions on Daniel Island will be undertaken.”
This is not the first time the Ports Authority has taken property that was never used for public purpose, said Mason.
“What ends up happening is, these properties end up getting transferred to private developers that make considerable money off of what should have been private property that these individual owners weren’t required to sell,” he continued. “In many cases, the persons affected are minorities that don’t have the financial or political power to fight the government. So, the property ends up getting taken and it ends up being sold to a private developer and they end up being displaced or in someway deprived of the economic value of their land.”
The first of the three lawsuits will be heard in November. When asked to comment on the cases, Erin Dhand, a spokesperson for the State Ports Authority, said the SPA will fulfill its legal and fiduciary obligations to ensure that the property is disposed of in accordance with the state statute.
“The Port has asked the court to provide guidance and direction for doing so relative to the three parcels,” said Dhand, SPA manager of corporate communications and community affairs. “It is the Port’s goal to have this matter resolved as quickly and expeditiously as possible, realizing that it is in the best interests of all parties to have this matter resolved sooner rather than later. The Port hopes the heirs and beneficiaries will work with the Port for a speedy resolution to this legal question.”