SUNSET BEACH – Within a month of closing on an oceanfront lot at the east end of Sunset Beach, Ann Morales had architectural renderings of the house she plans to have built, bought little boats for her granddaughters to use in the sound and prepared to put her home in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, on the market.
Also less than 30 days after buying the $1.2 million property, Morales was served a notice of intent that the town is considering taking her lot through eminent domain to use as, among other possibilities, a public parking lot and beach access.
“I was absolutely floored,” Morales said. “To be honest, I just can’t even tell you. I thought as an American we had property rights. At this point, I thought, is this all a delusion?”
Her plans are now on hold as she gears up for what may be a lengthy court battle to settle a dispute between private property rights and access to public trust land.
Months before the town served its notice of intent Jan. 10, Morales said, officials there had been sent a letter notifying them the property was under a temporary easement and that the easement would be revoked within 30 days.
A copy of the deed of easement signed and notarized in 1992 describes an agreement of a temporary easement between the company and the town, specifically a 12-foot-wide strip extending from the cul-de-sac on Main Street to the Atlantic Ocean’s high-water mark on the beach.
“It is understood, however, that this easement is temporary and may be revoked by Grantor upon 30 days written notice to Grantee,” the deed states.
The town did not respond to that July notice, Morales said. A second letter of revocation was sent. It, too, received no response, she said.
“They were aware that this was never, ever, ever a public access,” Morales said.
Town Attorney Grady Richardson told Coastal Review Online that he is aware that either Morales or the preceding owner of the property sent the town a letter last year.
“I’m fairly certain we responded in disagreement to that document,” Richardson said.
Richardson refused to discuss the specifics of the town’s claim to the easement, but he did address the defendant’s description.
“I don’t agree with Ms. Morales’ characterization of the town’s easement rights,” he said. “That will be the subject, the focus of the lawsuit.”
Town Administrator Hiram Marziano II declined to comment about the notice of intent, citing that it is an ongoing legal matter. But Marziano said the access is for emergency vehicles only.
“That is our intended use of that easement,” he said.
There is another emergency vehicle access in the center of the island. That one is roughly about a mile from the east-end access.
A chain runs the width of the entrance of the east-end access from the road. The town has posted signs that read “No Parking — Emergency Vehicles Only — Do Not Block Access.”
“We’ve had the chain up there for years,” Marziano said.
That apparently hasn’t hindered beachgoers from using the access to get to the beach.
Morales recalled standing on her lot New Year’s Eve and watching people come and go along the access – a liability for her as the property owner, she said.
Thinking she needed to post the property before tourism season began, Morales added an additional chain to the access, blocked it with sand fencing and posted a “private property, no trespassing” sign.
By that time, Morales said she had extended propositions to the town to keep the emergency vehicle access open for its intended use.
She said she made offers to the town in May, June and July, well before she closed on the lot Dec. 13 of last year.
“The town was fully aware of me closing,” on the property, she said. “I had been in (town hall) several times. They have a chain. I went in and said ‘let’s put in a gate. I will pay for the gate. I will pay for a keypad and sensors for the emergency vehicles. I will pay for the fencing going down the property, for the sign, for the landscaping.’”
She said town officials declined her offers.
Richardson refuted that the town had received such proposals.
“Ms. Morales knows that I’m the town attorney for Sunset Beach and her attorneys know that I’m the town attorney for Sunset Beach,” he said. “To date I have never received any offer by Ms. Morales or on behalf of Ms. Morales. I’ve never seen anything in writing from Ms. Morales offering to indicate any sort of proposal. If Ms. Morales in fact has proposals or offers to resolve this I stand ready, willing and able to take those proposals to council and propose it to them and I’ve told her attorney and put it in writing to her attorney.”
Morales said town officials had instead tried to show her other properties.
“They said to me, ‘Why do you even want this lot?’”
Her answer was simple. The lot’s oceanfront access and stunning views are to her well worth the more than $1 million she paid for the more than 1 ½-acre lot.
This is the land on which she plans to build a house close to her widowed daughter and granddaughters. Close enough to help her daughter by doing things like picking the girls up from school.
“Now (the town) is talking about a parking lot,” Morales said. “I can’t believe they allowed me to close on this (lot). Now the government wants to come in and destroy everything I’ve worked for my entire life.”
In its Jan. 10 “Notice of Intended Entry Upon Land,” the letter gives Morales a 30-day notice “to enter upon your land,” all 1.69 acres, to survey, bore, examine and/or appraise the land.
“The Town is considering exercising its power of eminent domain of the entirety of the Land for purposes of constructing a public beach parking and access area with associated improvements in order to establish access for the public to public trust beaches and appurtenant parking areas,” the letter states.
The town is also considering using eminent domain “for the purposes of constructing only a general public access; and/or only an emergency access for the Town; and/or for beach erosion control, flood and hurricane protection works.”
“I never heard of anything like that,” Morales said. “The town had never said anything like that. What an abuse of power. I think this has been handled in a horrific way. I’m sick. I’m absolutely sick about it. I dotted all my Is, crossed all my Ts. This never should have happened. I have to fight, unfortunately. It’s not what I want to do. If this can happen to me it can happen to anybody.”
Morales’ lot is in the Palm Cove subdivision at the east end of Sunset Beach.