Hotel, garage project approvals appealed to state court

By Tony Kukulich

An ongoing battle between developer Graham Trask and the City of Beaufort entered a new phase when Trask appealed a January 2022 ruling by 14th Judicial Circuit that favored the city.

At the center of the conflict is the city’s approval of two projects championed by another developer, 303 Associates.

The Beaufort Inn project envisions a 77-unit hotel planned for the corner of Scott and Port Republic streets that features retail/commercial space on the ground floor, accommodations on the upper floors, and a rooftop bar and restaurant. A 496-space, 186,000-square parking structure on Craven Street is the second project. Final approval for both of these initiatives was granted by the city’s Historic District Review Board (HRB).

“Our position is that (the city) clearly did not follow their process,” Trask said. “It’s not a judgment call. It’s not subjective because it involves dates. In their code, they say the preliminary approval is valid for 18 months, and then it expires. Preliminary approvals for the hotel and the garage expired before they went to the next step. If 18 months pass, their preliminary approval disappears, and they have to start again. What happened is that their preliminary approval expired because they didn’t go to the next step within the 18 months. The city, Dave Prichard, still allowed them to go forward.”

The Historic Beaufort Foundation (HBF) joined Trask in challenging the approval of the hotel and garage projects. Both the city and 303 Associates are named as respondents in Trask’s appeal.

“The city, and 303 Associates, will be defending these rulings in the Court of Appeals,” said Bill Harvery, attorney for the City of Beaufort. “We are still in the briefing period. Whereas Graham Trask’s counsel has filed an initial brief, nothing yet has been filed by the city or 303 Associates.”

Judge Bentley Price in the Court of Common Pleas 14th Judicial Circuit heard arguments in January 2022 in which Trask and the HBF contested the HRB’s June 2021 final approval of the hotel and garage projects. On January 20, Price issued a ruling that upheld the HRB’s decision and denied Trask’s appeal.

Trask had argued that the city had committed a number of procedural violations during the years-long review and approval process. Price, in a 20-page order found fault with those arguments. Among his comments, Price stated that city code allows only 30 days to appeal decisions. As such, Trask was limited to contesting only the matters that were decided in June 2021. He was prohibited from appealing decisions made months or years earlier related to the hotel and garage projects.

Before filing with the South Carolina Court of Appeals, Trask submitted a motion for reconsideration to the Court of Common Pleas. That motion was also denied.

In his latest appeal, Trask reiterates many of the same arguments made in the initial appeal, but further argues the Court of Common Pleas erred in its interpretation of the facts of the case. The principal position taken by Trask is that the parking garage received preliminary approval in September 2017, while final approval was not attained until June 2021. Trask asserted in his appeal that the preliminary approval remains valid for only 18 months. Once the 18-month window expired, 303 Associates should have been required to restart the approval process. Instead, the HRB granted final approval in June 2021, long past the 18-month window.

He makes a similar argument regarding the hotel approval process, though the dates are slightly different.

The Court of Appeals has yet to consider Trask’s appeal. It remains to be seen if the decision by the Court of Common Pleas will be upheld, or if Trask’s appeal will be found to have merit. If the court vacates HRB’s approval of the two projects, a process that started at least as early as 2016 will be sent back to the drawing board.

“Our downtown projects will be great for Beaufort residents, visitors, merchants, property owners and taxpayers will all benefit,” said Jonathan Sullivan, who was named co-CEO along with Courtney Worrell when founder Dick Stewart announced his retirement from 303 Associates earlier this year. “We have over 20-years experience following the established procedures for building in downtown Beaufort. We remain committed to the projects and to improving our downtown commercial district. We are confident that Judge Price’s order will be upheld by the appellate courts, and we look forward to celebrating this success with the community.”

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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