Behind God’s Back No More: The Future of Heirs’ Property on James Island

James Island Gentrification Pt. III

BY ON JULY 30, 2015

This is the third and final installment of JIM’s three part series on Gentrification on James Island.

“Oh, my God,” groaned Liz Singleton as she tuned around the corner along Grimball Road Extension and her eyes took in the ‘Broadstone Seaside,’ a residential development (PUD) under construction in what was once the rural Scott Hill community. Singleton, the president of the Greater Grimball Home Owners’ Association, had been invited to meet and look at the progress of the construction of the planned unit development formerly known as the Cooper James PUD by another area HOA president, the Battery Island neighborhood’s Giovanni Richardson. “And you weren’t kidding,” Singleton said to Richardson, suddenly broken from her trance brought on by the sheer size of the development. “That is definitely out of character for the neighborhood.”

Richardson herself was in a trance, staring down at the recently installed sign designating the front entrance to the community. “And what the heck is ‘Broadstone Seaside,’ she said in a moment of sensory overload, before immediately realizing that the short time between her own visits to the growing site, the community had been renamed and rebranded. “Don’t answer that,” she chuckled, the laugh sounding strange without joy behind it.

The fact of the matter is, that the times, they are a’ changing. James Islanders fighting to preserve the sea island’s rural nature, its communal character, are being challenged by projects like the PUD which allows for virtually unlimited density. Advocates have suffered a number of defeats over the years, some of which are being constructed now.

Gentrification on James Island begins when communication between the area governments, the duly elected officials who represent the people, and the people of James Island’s traditionally black neighborhoods breaks down. In the case of the Broadstone Seaside, it was a complete breakdown.

The facility was constructed on land that was for decades the home of James Island Auto Salvage. The plan was to place the 294-unit, two-entrance development on a bend on Folly Rd. And for their part the developers did reach out to the community … at least part of it.

“When they planned for it they notified some of the people, but all of the people were not notified,” remembers Richardson of the 2012 build-up to the City’s planning teams vetting the application for the PUD zoning status. Singleton chimed in on the fact that many projects are replacing affordable housing options with developments that are both out of character with what they replace, but also out of the price range of who they displace. “When you speak about gentrification, what happened in downtown Charleston … that is happening now here on James Island,” she said.

For Richardson however, government has been displacing traditional communities for growth for decades, only now, with available land on James Island drying up quickly, the pressure has been increased. “All of the traditional communities on this end of the island (south, close to Folly Beach) extend across what is now Folly Rd. The more and more it was used, the more and more it divided my neighborhood (the Battery Island Drive community); it divided the Grimball community, and it has divided others too.”

“We’re losing the character (of the community) basically because your government is interested only in money, that’s basically what it is,” began Singleton on the topic of why. “They think nothing about the character, the integrity of the community, the people, none of that, it’s all about the almighty dollar.

“That’s what growth is, growth is not about advancement, it’s not about working as a member of a team, it’s not about true progress, and it doesn’t take everybody with you. This is about greed and wealth,” continues Singleton.

Ultimately the fate of these lands will be determined by the actions of the homeowners themselves, well, that, zoning and the ever-changing City of Charleston Urban Growth Boundary. Much of the land however, is heirs’ property: purchased by first-generation property owners in the black community sometime between the beginning of reconstruction and the start of the World War II, usually small groups of owners, as blacks had to pool their money to purchase the land.

Those properties are special, in that, according to Tish Lynn, Resource Development Coordinator with the West Ashley-based non-profit the Heirs Property Center for Preservation, “Heirs property is just plain vulnerable.

“The reason heirs property is vulnerable is how easily one can acquire it. If I want a piece of heirs property all I have to do is find one heir, who might live in Detroit, or Newark, and has never set foot in South Carolina, but is an heir or has become an heir but doesn’t have any feeling for this land in South Carolina, they still have a right.”

“People want to get it, because they want to build or develop. Further pressure is put on the surrounding community from taxes going up due to the land around them that is being developed. It’s not a safe way to own land,” said Lynn, in an interview with JIM.

Though they lie largely in unincorporated Charleston County, many of James Island’s traditional black communities were fiercely self-sufficient. They managed their own policing, religious and secular education, and taxation. As the suburbs grew out and across the sea island, they slowly became integrated into municipal thinking. Now, with the City of Charleston annexing its way to the Atlantic, the traditionally black communities of Grimball, Sol Legare, and Battery Island are front and center in the battle for James Island’s soul, and the fights ahead are many.


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