Recent “temporary” closure of gates to subdivision brings symbolic end to decades-long fight over the fate of the property
By Charlie Morrison
“It was the only place on the water we could afford without bars on the windows,” says Lighthouse Point Homeowner’s Association President Brook Lyon of the home she and her husband Bill purchased on Port Circle back in 1997. And while the Lyon home remains free of bars, the same can’t be said for her neighborhood, at least as of three weeks ago. It was then that the 48-acre, live oak-strewn tract to the north of Lighthouse Point sold in 1999 to local developer Charleston Commercial Properties and since platted for 28 marsh-front lots became a gated community. And while the gates were approved by the City as “temporary,” a mere glance at the brick and iron, push-button controlled façade begs the question of when if ever again the property will be open for public access.
The closure of the gates to what is now known as the Belle Terre subdivision brings to a symbolic end, at least, one of the longest public debates over a piece of James Island green space in the island’s history. And while much of the debate over the property and its usage has been settled, the gates themselves, however, specifically their closure both day and night, remain a matter of controversy in the community.
The history of the 48-acre tract begins with Josiah R. Harvey, who willed the deed to the tract to St. James Episcopal Church in 1837 on the lone condition that should the church ever consider selling it, the land instead become the property of the Charleston Orphan House, an organization that has since evolved into the Carolina Youth Development Center. In the late 1980s, the organization sold its rights to the inherited land, in effect liberating St. James from Harvey’s mandate to transfer ownership rather than sell.
And a decade later, St. James Episcopal sold the property for the sum of $4.2 million, to a Texas-based developer represented locally by agent Paul Feldman of Charleston Commercial Properties. The sale did much to divide the church. In addition, many in the community, including the James Island Public Service District (JISPD), cried foul over the annexation of the property into the City of Charleston and its subsequent sale.
In the end, the sale, zoning and platting of the property was slowly ground through the City’s respective committees, with a final plat number set at 28 lots, and permits for sewer, water, and electric facilities added. Opponents remained fiercely determined to hinder development, but only the economic downturn of five years ago served to accomplish that end. And while passions remained high, things simmered under the surface for the most part until early last year.
It was then, in January of 2012 that the Belle Terre Homeowner’s Association, along with property manager Sentry Management, submitted an encroachment agreement request to the City requesting the installation of “temporary security gates” at both entrances to the subdivision. Their request was for the placement of an “iron swing gate” at the western end of Parrot Point Drive and another at the southern end of Tanner Trail, public roadways constructed as part of the subdivision.
As it stands now, with the gates shut day and night, area residents are barred from entry and are forced to trespass to access the public road or the walking paths they were promised.At that time, the Lighthouse Point HOA and others who’d long fought the project thought they had come to an agreement with then-Belle Terre HOA President Paul Feldman regarding the gate. Given that the development had experienced some crime and vandalism in the decade since it was first purchased, Lyon and her neighbors in Lighthouse Point approved Feldman’s group going ahead with the gates, for safety reason. Lyon states that the agreement was based solely on Feldman’s reassurance that pedestrian and bicycle traffic would be allowed on the public roadway.
Later on that year, in March, City of Charleston Public Works & Utilities Committee, on the advice of department head staffer Laura Cabiness, voted unanimously to approve of the encroachment agreement permitting the gates and their closure, both day and night, on the condition that upon the City’s issuance of the 21 certificates of occupancy for lots within the community, the gates must be kept open throughout the day.
A letter sent in May of 2012 to members of the Belle Terre Homeowner’s Association from property management firm Sentry Management, which is currently managing the development, casts doubt as to what the group’s intentions were in pursuing the temporary encroachment agreement as means to gate the subdivision.
In that letter, which asks each homeowner to contribute $2,000 to the cost of the estimated $60,000 gates, Sentry’s Danny DeSimoni states that once constructed, “the gates should remain closed for many years,” and that their installation would “immediately provide a tremendous return on each land owner’s investment.”
City Council, and especially James Island’s Kathleen Wilson, has of late taken notice of the frustration felt by residents. In an email recently sent to Lyon, Wilson notes “the greater issue of permanence has come up and whether the developer will ever actually sell the number of lots required to open the gates again or whether it is a backdoor means of gaining a gated community.”
And while the City and Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. have long stated their opposition to gated communities in the City, and though only one house currently sits occupied in the subdivision, the condition mandating 21 certificates of occupancy be issued by the County remains firmly in place, like the gates themselves.
© 2013 Wiser Time Publishing, Inc.