The Robert Smalls House at 511 Prince St. in the “Old Point” neighborhood. Photo by Bob Sofaly.

Public access to Robert Smalls House leads to lawsuit

Neighborhood group claims property values are being reduced as a result of access to home

By Tony Kukulich

Concern over increased tourist activity at the McKee-Smalls House, also referred to as the Robert Smalls House, is at the center of a complaint filed in Court of Common Pleas last week.

The action was brought by the Friends of the Historic Point Neighborhood and seven individual plaintiffs. It names the City of Beaufort, Billy Keyserling and Paul Keyserling as defendants.

The complaint alleges that the plaintiffs have suffered a reduction in the value of their properties “due to increased traffic, noise, and pollution, the disruption of the unique historic Point residential neighborhood, and other impairments to the use and enjoyment” of their properties.

The Point neighborhood is a popular tourist destination with tours available from commercial vendors as well as the National Park Service. Rick Campbell, one of the plaintiffs in the case and a neighbor of the McKee-Smalls house, acknowledged that foot traffic and tourists are part of life in the Point.

“We all love the horse and carriages,” Campbell said. “We all live in the historic district for the reasons you’d expect. We love the homes. We love the neighborhood. We love the fact that we’ve got regular visitors who come to town to walk the neighborhood and see the beautiful homes. When it reaches the point that people are having daily tours, that starts creating congestion.”

Former Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling purchased the McKee-Smalls House, located at 511 Prince St., with his brother Paul Keyserling for $1.67 million in April 2021.

The property included an easement owned by the Historic Beaufort Foundation (HBF) at the time of its purchase by the Keyserlings. It stipulates that the owner of the property must make it accessible to the public at least four half days a year. Further access can be allowed to give educational organizations, architectural associations and historical societies the opportunity to study the property.

After the Keyserlings acquired the historic property, they expanded public access through an arrangement with the National Park Service. Walking tours originating at the Beaufort-based Reconstruction Era National Historic Park (RENHP) are allowed to enter the property. As previously reported by The Island News, Scott Teodorski, superintendent of the Beaufort-based RENHP, said that itineraries for the park’s free, ranger-led tours are up to the individual rangers. The McKee-Smalls House may or may not be included in any particular tour, and no tours focus on the property exclusively. RENHP tours happen twice daily Tuesday through Saturday.

“We work with partners in the community and the Keyserlings are one of those partners,” Teodorski explained during an interview in May. “They’re not conducting any tours or imploring us to do tours. They’ve made the house available for some of our ranger-led tours.”

FHPN alleges in their complaint that allowing tours to enter the property is a violation of the city’s zoning ordinance for the residential neighborhood. They also allege that the city has not taken steps to address the alleged violations after the FHPN raised the issue with the city attorney in May 2022.

“I received this lawsuit this afternoon, and I have not yet had the opportunity to discuss it with city council,” said City Attorney Bill Harvey on Monday. “There will be no comment from me until that occurs.”

In its request to the 14th Circuit Court of Common Pleas for declaratory judgment, an action in which the court rules on controversies between parties, the complaint states, “These issues are ripe for this Court’s determination because, among other things, the City has failed and refused to enforce the zoning ordinances as alleged in this complaint, despite clear requests by the Plaintiffs to the City that it do so.”

While Campbell acknowledges that tours and tourists have long visited the neighborhood, he asserts that the manner in which the Keyserlings allow access to their property violates zoning ordinances. It will be up to the court to determine the validity of their argument.

“We want to see the city enforce the residential requirements and stop the attempt to make this what is tantamount to a museum,” Campbell said. “We want it to be a residence. We want people to live there and enjoy the home. We want the neighborhood to be a place enjoyed by visitors. They can come and walk down the street like they have historically before Billy bought the house. People take pictures of the home everyday.”

Billy Keyserling replied, “No comment,” when asked for his reaction to the FHPN complaint.

The HBF has also taken issue with the amount of public access that the Keyserlings have allowed at the McKee-Smalls house. They filed a complaint in make with the same court seeking declaratory judgment as to whether allowing regular tours of the property violated the easement on the property. A ruling in that case is still pending.

The McKee-Smalls House was originally built around 1810, and by the 1830s it was owned by the McKee family. Henry McKee sold the house in 1851 and moved to a new home on Bay Street.

Robert Smalls bought the house from a tax auction in January 1864. Smalls had gained notoriety by stealing the C.S.S. Planter and slipping unnoticed out of Charleston Harbor to freedom with 17 Black passengers in 1862. He went on to hold elected office in the South Carolina State Assembly and Senate as well as the U.S. House of Representatives. Smalls and his descendants lived in the house until 1940. He died at the Prince Street home where he had lived and raised two families for more than 50 years.

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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