An Imminent Domain?
Subdivision of historic Heyward-Cuthbert property flusters preservationists, Lawton Bluff residents
By Charlie Morrison
Last month, the City of Charleston’s Technical Review Committee (TRC) all but approved an application to subdivide the Lawton Bluff property on which sits James Island’s second oldest home, the Heyward Cuthbert House, circa 1745. Property owners John and Patricia Lee presented to the TRC an application to subdivide roughly a fifth of the 1.58 acre property the home now sits on, for the purpose of potentially building a second home on the land.
The TRC all but stamped their approval on the project, answering the question of whether the family could subdivide their land. That question answered, another still lingers for many on James Island concerned with the situation, the question of whether the family should subdivide and build a second home on the land continues to resonate with Lawton Bluff residents and James Island’s preservationist community alike.
The Lees’ stated reason for subdividing is to potentially build a home for their daughter on the property, according to their presentation at the TRC’s Nov. 15 meeting. It’s not the family situation that has area residents concerned, however, it’s the potential for a new structure to be built adjacent to Harbor View Road.
The Lawton Bluff neighborhood, of which the Heyward-Cuthbert House is a highlight, is populated by homes on typically large lots placed back from the roadway. The location of a potential second structure on the property would necessitate it being located abnormally close to Harbor View Road, by Lawton Bluff standards. According to some residents, it’s this facet of the subdivision plans that concerns them.
“The Lee family has taken beautiful care of that property, and everything they’ve done is absolutely beautiful,” says Susan Millikan, who also lives on Ft. Sumter Drive. “Our great hope is that if something does go in that subdivided acreage be something beautiful. But [the proposed plan] will look very different and be close to the road.
“Obviously, it’s one of the most important properties in Charleston County. The house being that old, and just the idea of it being subdivided and a new house being built so close to Harbor View Road … Our concern is not that there’s something nefarious going on there, our concern is that it’s just in keeping with Lawton Bluff,” says Millikan.
“Our fear is that an elevated, new house would be built down there close to the road and that it would look really, really different,” says Millikan, who’s quick to note that there is no shortage of rental properties or properties for sale outright in Lawton Bluff.
The specs of the subdivision mandate that a 0.35 acre, rectangular lot be established in the northwest corner of the existing property. The actual lot will be set back 25 feet from both Harbor View Road on the south side and the northern boundary of the lot separating it from the main house on the north. Nine feet will separate the lot’s east and west borders. The preliminary plat for the subdivision alludes that, should the Lee family decide to build, a driveway will be installed emptying out on to Harbor View Road.
The Lee family first purchased the home is July, 2004. A year later they annexed the property into the City of Charleston and then in November, 2006, it was re-zoned to its current status as half residential, half landmark overlay.
Six years passed since the property was rezoned with nary a peep until last month, when the Lee family officially submitted an application to subdivide the property to the TRC. The move served as a signal to preservationist and history buffs across the island that have long monitored the issue, that the family had decided to act on the zoning provision they’d worked to create a half-decade earlier.
The Heyward-Cuthbert House is one of six properties on James Island to survive the Civil War, and one of five structures on James Island (in addition to other batteries, installations, etc.) that are zoned as part of the City’s Historic Landmark Overlay. The home has recent history as well, as James Island historian Clyde Bresee called the Heyward-Cuthbert House home as a boy and later wrote a pair of books on James Island life from the experience.
The Heyward-Cuthbert House was originally constructed following the death of colonial militia Captain Thomas Heyward, who in his 1737 will stipulated that a home be built alongside James Island Creek for his wife and his children following his death.
The home was built several years later, and it remained in the Heyward family until 1787, a relative married into the Cuthbert family. Only in 1846 did the home leave the possession of the Heyward-Cuthbert family. In that year, it was purchased by Winborn Lawton II, who later used it as the home for the overseer for his large estate, a tract of land we now know as the greater Lawton Bluff neighborhood.
The Heyward-Cuthbert House has remained a private residence ever since it was erected. It will assuredly, remain private for the foreseeable future, however, whether or not the property will preserve its iconic look for the same foreseeable future remains a matter of conjecture.
The next meeting of the City of Charleston’s Technical Review Committee is Thursday, Dec. 6 at 9:00 a.m. Meetings are held in the City’s Planning Library on the 3rd Floor of 75 Calhoun St. For more information on the body, see their website at http://www.charleston-sc.gov/dept/content.aspx?nid=2387