South Carolina

How a Beaufort County community is trying to keep the partying public off its beach

Video: A trip down St. Helena Island’s Avenue of Oaks

The scenic Avenue of Oaks is located at the end of Coffin Point Road. Here is the view Jan. 25, 2016.
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The scenic Avenue of Oaks is located at the end of Coffin Point Road. Here is the view Jan. 25, 2016.

In the late 1880s, Lt. Charles H. Lyman arrived at Parris Island as the first commanding officer of the naval station under construction.

A few years later, he applied to a state commission to buy 164 acres of tideland on St. Helena Island, along what is now Coffin Point Plantation, for $1 per acre. The property was later owned by J. Donald Cameron, a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and a cabinet member for President Ulysses S. Grant.

In the 1950s, the deed fell to J.E. McTeer, the hoodoo-practicing longtime Beaufort County sheriff.

That’s the chain of ownership claimed by the Coffin Point Homeowners Association as it seeks to clear title to the community’s beach to maintain it as a private amenity. The association has sued the state and anyone who might claim interest to recognize that the McTeer family’s ownership traces to a state grant given to Lyman in 1891.

As of Friday, 10 individuals and couples who own property in Coffin Point are defendants fighting the association’s ownership claim in court. They say the association can’t prove a continuous chain of ownership and that under the public trust doctrine, the beach can’t be privately owned.

Despite seeking to dismiss the case and denying the association’s right to own the beach, property owner and New York attorney Scot Hersh acknowledged the list of past owners’ place in local lore.

“The players...are legends in history,” Hersh told a Beaufort County judge during a hearing in the case Wednesday. “It’s very interesting.”

Coffin Point is a quiet community of dirt roads on the northern end of rural St. Helena Island. Its iconic tree-lined entryway, Avenue of the Oaks, is a popular spot for photographers and tourists.

Large home lots allow for sprawling garden plots and livestock.

Multiple entryways allow private beach access from within the community. Homeowners association leaders say that with the organization owning the beach, it can maintain the property as the private amenity people expected when they bought homes in Coffin Point.

The association’s concerns include the prospect of keg parties, people who have removed large amounts of shell by the truckload and visitors who park on nearby roads and cross a private lot to get to the beach. There are public beaches in northern Beaufort County better suited to host visitors, said Aaron Hall, the homeowners association president.

“We’re not set up to be a public access area,” Hall said. “They wanted to give it to us, why wouldn’t we jump on it?”

McTeer bought the property in 1952 and subdivided and developed the lots. His son, Ed McTeer, and Ed’s wife, Kathy, now live on 13 acres in Coffin Point. They gave the homeowners association the tideland property between the high- and low-water marks that they claim under the original state grant.

In court papers, the homeowners association says the grant to Lyman trumps public trust doctrine, which holds that shoreline below the high tide line is public regardless of private interests.

Multiple property owners who are not members of the association are disputing the organization’s claim. Charleston attorney Mary Shahid, who represents several of the property owners opposing the association in court, said the beach is a public resource separate from the tidelands — regardless of whether the original grant can be proven.

“Our position would be that does not affect the public beach,” Shahid said.

The state and Hersh sought to dismiss the case last week. Judge Marvin Dukes allowed the case to continue and ordered that the homeowners association refine some of the language in its complaint and broaden the potential defendants who might have interest in the property.

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