Sep. 7—Recent research by Beaufort County has turned up a surprise: The county doesn’t own, or even have agreements to maintain, five boat landings — even though it has operated them for decades, investing thousands of dollars annually in upkeep.
Future investments in the prized access to waters around Beaufort County are now on hold as the county figures out how to proceed in light of the fuzzy ownership/easement issues.
County officials say they do not plan to close the landings. However, some County Council members say they also don’t want to spend more money on those properties without new agreements or easements clarifying the county’s role.
There’s also liability to consider, says County Council Chairman Joseph Passiment.
“This is a hot-button topic as to whether we should continue maintaining any facility — I don’t care what it is — any facility we don’t have clear title to because of the litigious society we’re in,” he said.
The boat landings are “precious commodities,” Passiment said, but the ownership question “is definitely a problem.” If somebody was injured on the landings, he said, the county could be held responsible, even though it doesn’t own them.
Ownership or easements are in question at boat landings at Sands Beach in Port Royal, the Brickyard on Lady’s Island, Russ Point on Hunting Island, Wallace Boat on St. Helena Island and Wimbee at Lobeco north of Beaufort.
“I don’t understand how we maintain something we don’t own,” County Councilman Lawrence McElynn said.
Jared Fralix, assistant county administrator of engineering, compared the county’s involvement with these sites to some “legacy” dirt roads the county also maintains. At some point, the county began maintaining these roads, he said, although it isn’t always clear when or why.
Beaufort County maintains 25 boat landings, in addition to 17 public-access points to water, bluffs and piers that don’t accommodate boats.
The county is creating a comprehensive master plan for improving those sites, which is expected to be out in six to eight months. As part of that process, county staff reviewed titles, easements and agreements. That’s when they discovered the problems involving the five boat landings. Either the county didn’t own the sites, or there was no agreement to maintain them, requiring additional investigation.
Each of the ownership/easement quandaries is different.
A title search of the Port Royal Sands Beach landing, for example, found no record of the county owing it, or even a formal maintenance agreement. The county says the owner is either the town or Grey Ghost, a neighboring property owner.
Port Royal officials are concerned the town could get stuck maintaining the Sands Beach boat landing, where Beaufort County spends $20,000 a year. It’s one of the most popular landings north of the Broad River. Town Manager Van Willis says the town doesn’t have the money to take over maintenance. Should that happen, the town might have to look at a permit or decal system to raise funds to pay for maintenance, Willis said. “It’s something we’d have to talk about.”
The county says it will continue maintaining the dock while working with Port Royal to finalize a long-term agreement to ensure residents and visitors continue to have access.
County Administrator Eric Greenway is recommending that the county pursue agreements so it keeps maintaining the sites.
“I would not recommend you abandon maintenance on any of these facilities,” Greenway said.
Several council members agree, urging staff to pursue maintenance deals so the county can continue the upkeep.
“Beaufort County is surrounded by water,” Council member Gerald Dawson noted, “and we need every access to the water we can possibly get.”