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Charles Gardner points out the property of neighbor Ruben Adams on Warsaw Island, South Carolina, Saturday, April 30, 2022. Gardner is engaged in a multi-year legal dispute over the ownership of a road that separates his property Adams'. In 2018, the 14th Circuit Court awarded Adams ownership of the road, but the South Carolina Court of Appeals recently ruled that neither man has a valid claim of ownership. Photos by Tony Kukulich

Case of disputed road, boat ramp takes turn

By Tony Kukulich

Ownership of an unassuming stretch of dirt road in rural Beaufort County has been the focus of a years-long legal struggle, and a recent appellate court ruling determined that neither party involved in the dispute has a valid claim to the road.

At stake is long-standing tradition of community access to a dirt track that connects the end of Warsaw Island Road to a boat ramp on the banks of Jenkins Creek on Warsaw Island.

Nearly three years ago, Judge Perry M. Buckner III of the 14th Judicial Circuit assigned ownership of the road to Ruben Adams, who had purchased a small plot of land adjacent to the road three years earlier. Shortly after the 2018 ruling, Adams erected a cattle gate across the road, ending the community’s use of the road and boat landing. Last week the South Carolina Court of Appeals overturned Buckner’s ruling and stated Adams had presented no proof of ownership.

For now, the gate remains in place.

Charles Gardner lives on the north side of the unnamed road, which is referred to in legal documents as the 30-foot road. Gardner, and his father before him, claimed ownership of the road and the ramp. They maintained them and paid taxes on them.

“We always considered it our road,” Gardner said. “For 35 to 40 years me and my father maintained that road.”

For decades the Gardner family provided access to the ramp to members of the community. It was used to launch fishing boats; for recreation and for travel to and from the island in the days before Warsaw Island Road existed. According to Gardner, the landing has served the Warsaw Island community for 200 years, maybe longer.

“There’s a lot of people that’ve been using this boat landing over the years,” said Richard Williamson, a neighbor of Gardner. “Lots and lots of folks grew up on this island using this landing to learn to swim, learn to fish, learn to boat. They fed their family. It was very important to the island, very important to the people.”

The 30-foot road also provided Gardner the only access to his property.

Charles Gardner and Ed Atkins pause for moment on Gardner’s property on Warsaw Island.

By all accounts, the arrangement worked well for everyone. That began to change in January 2015 when Adams purchased a 1.054-acre plot of land on the south side of the 30-foot road at a county tax auction for $19,000. He took up residence on the land, living in a travel trailer he moved onto the property. Initially, Gardner and his new neighbors got along well enough, but the relationship soon soured.

Adams’ access to his property was also dependent on the 30-foot road, and in 2017 Gardner sued Adams for trespass. Adams claimed ownership of the road and the boat ramp in his response. According to court documents, Adams asserted that a 1990 quiet title order assigned ownership of the 30-foot road and the 1.054-acre plot to John Howard, and his purchase of the Howard property in the county tax sale gave him ownership of the road.

While Gardner did not contest the provenance of the 1.054-acre plot, he did argue that Gardner provided the court no proof of ownership of the Howard property as Adams did not produce a deed. Without a clear title of ownership, Adams’ claim on the road and ramp was invalid, he argued. Gardner’s point regarding Adams’ ownership of the property was interrupted by Buckner, and that would be a factor in the most recent ruling by the appellate court.

Buckner sided with Adams. He handed down a partial summary judgment in June 2018 finding the road, the boat ramp and the property to the south belonged to Adams, stating that he was the successor to the Howard property.

Several weeks later, Gardner returned home to find that Adams had erected a gate across the 30-foot road. With no access to his property. Gardner and his neighbors hacked a new track through a thick stand of trees and undergrowth to give him access from Ashton Road.

Adams’ gate cut off the community’s access to the 30-foot road and the Jenkins Creek boat ramp. More than an inconvenience, the move impacted the ability of some community members to earn a living. Eventually, a class action suit was filed against Adams with approximately three dozen plaintiffs joining the case.

“I’m spending over $50 a day just to get to a boat ramp I can use,” said Ed Atkins, who has fished Jenkins Creek for more than 50 years to supply his bait shop business on St. Helena Island. “When Adams blocked that road, that really hurt me. It’s costing me time and money, losing bait and everything else.”

Gardner filed a motion for reconsideration of Buckner’s ruling, pressing the issue of Adams’ lack of a clear title to the property. He added that Buckner’s interpretation of the 1990 quiet title was flawed. He said the quiet title actually identified Beaufort County as the owner of the 30-foot road, and that it was not part of the Howard property. That motion was denied.

Gardner then appealed Buckner’s ruling in April 2021, and late last month the South Carolina Court of Appeals found that Buckner erred in his decision.

“We find Gardner’s challenge of the circuit court’s conclusion that Adams owned the Howard property is preserved because Gardner attempted to bring proof to the attention of the circuit court before the court essentially cut off the argument with interjected questions,” read the April 27 court decision signed by Judge Aphrodite K. Konduros, Judge John D. Geathers and Judge Stephanie P. McDonald.

The court went on to state that the Gardner’s deed to his property excluded the 30-foot road. As a result, he has no claim on it. That decision “in no way places the title of the road to Adams,” the court said.

The court concluded that neither Gardner nor Adams owns the 30-foot road.

A gate erected by Ruben Adams remains in place on the 30-foot road on Warsaw Island, South Carolina, Saturday, April 30, 2022. in 2018, Adams was awarded ownership of the road leading to a boat ramp on Jenkins Creek, but an appellate court recently reveresed that decision. Photo by Tony Kukulich

The next steps in the dispute are still to be determined. In the meantime, tensions between Adams and his neighbors along Warsaw Island and Ashton roads remain high. Adams was arrested twice for assault. In 2019 he was arrested for assaulting a neighbor, Joey Heyward. He was arrested a second time shortly after Christmas 2021 for assaulting Gardner’s daughter, Valerie Gardner. That charge was recently dismissed.

“They didn’t give me a lawyer,” she said in an interview with The Island News. “They didn’t give me a state-appointed lawyer. They didn’t give me that. They didn’t have anybody for me.”

Adams’ property at 240 Warsaw Island Rd. is currently listed for sale for $540,000.

An online listing states, “The property features a long drive which leads to your own private boat ramp.”

An attempt to reach Adams through his attorney was unsuccessful. Adams was represented by Terry A. Finger, founder and senior partner at Finger, Melnick, Brooks & LaBruce, P.A. He also serves as the Town Attorney for Bluffton. As of press time, Finger had not responded to a request for an interview.

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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