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The Road Not Taken

33 mins read

Dispute over Warsaw Island boat ramp, road erupts into class action suit, community upheaval

By MINDY LUCAS

A few years before he died, Charles Gardner’s father, Leroy, deeded Charles the land where he now lives in a modest, red-brick house at the end of Warsaw Island Road.

The oldest of five children, Gardner grew up just down the road in a three-bedroom, one-bath wooden house the children shared with parents, Leroy and Ardelle. 

For as far back as anyone can remember, the Gardners and the Taylors, have lived on the land and on the island, long before a road was built to the mainland. 

In the summers, the family would fish or row over to Dataw to pick vegetables or farm the land. In the winters they would hunt, pick oysters or butcher hogs. Nearby, roads such as Gardner Drive and Willie Gardner Road still carry the family name.

Now the main road, and the only road on or off the island, Warsaw Island Road splits the land into equal halves before it turns slightly to the right and winds its way toward the northeast corner of the island and the Gardners’ property which overlooks Jenkins Creek. 

There, the county road, which wasn’t paved until 1996, turns into a private, 30-foot dirt road that ends at a boat ramp. 

Despite only being a short distance from the Gardner’s home and an extended driveway that once veered off to the family’s garage, the road and boat ramp have been used for years by many in the community who rely on the access its provides to the creeks and rivers beyond.

It was, and still is, considered as much a part of the road system to those who live and work on the sea islands, as the road itself.

“Before the road came across to Warsaw, that was the only way people used to go to church or go shopping,” said Gardner.

Before Charles took it over, Charles’ father maintained the road and ramp, often acting as an unofficial custodian of a place that served the community as much as his own family.

In fact, as far as anyone knew, the road belonged to the Gardners.

But now the road has been closed and the use of the boat ramp halted. A dispute over who actually owns the road and ramp has erupted into a legal battle and class action lawsuit.

What’s even more upsetting, say many who live on the island, is the dispute has spilled over into a once peaceful community in the form of angry roadside confrontations and community upheaval.

It’s a situation that has caused many to wonder, where does the interpretation of the law as it is written end, and the history and intention of a place begin?

A new neighbor 

Charles Gardner remembers the first time he met Ruben Adams. It was the moment he learned the one-acre strip of land next door had been sold. 

Neither he, nor many of his neighbors along the adjoining Ashton Drive, were even aware the property – previously owned by distant relatives of the Gardners – had been sold to a trust a year earlier in a tax sale for $4,000. 

In January of 2015, Adams purchased the property for the astonishingly low price of $19,000, according to both Adams and county records.

At the time, Gardner thought it strange that anyone, including Adams, would want to buy the one-acre strip given you couldn’t build on
the property – at least that had been his understanding of the “property across the road” for all those years.

According to David Youmans, a surveyor with extensive experience and knowledge of the area, the setback for the strip is 60 feet from the edge of the marsh and 75 feet for a septic system.

“Nobody really wanted to buy it because nobody could build on it,” said Gardner. “I thought the only thing he could do was clean it up and have a picnic on it or something.”

Nonetheless, Adams soon moved a camper to the property and began living there full time. The two neighbors used the same 30-foot road to access their property, which Gardner didn’t think much about since he let others in the community use the road.

Adams attended cookouts at Gardner’s house and helped Gardner get his garage door repaired. For all intents and purposes things were amicable – until Adams began asking Gardner about the road.

In the early ‘80s, Gardner’s father had leased part of the land, road and boat ramp to Alcoa which used the property as a staging area for developing Dataw. A 1995 survey conducted by Gasque and Associates for Gardner shows the boat ramp was “owned and claimed by Leroy Gardner.”

After his father died, Gardner continued maintaining the road and boat ramp, which meant bringing in dirt or gravel for the road or repairing the concrete on the ramp, all things that Gardner has paid for over the years.

What’s more, Gardner pays taxes on the road and the ramp, which are detailed on his property tax bill.

So why was his new neighbor asking about the road?

Adams said he asked Gardner, who owned the road before he closed on the property, “just to see what he would say.”

“I already knew (I owned it) because of my paperwork,” Adams said.

A self-described “frustrated entrepreneur,” Adams, who once owned Carolina Sweets candy business, most recently built and sold spec houses on Hilton Head Island.

Born in Mobile, Alabama, and raised in Louisiana, Adams, who is 67 now, said he started building houses when he was 24.

After the housing bubble burst, Adams said he lost millions on various properties he was holding the mortgages on, including a large home he was fixing up on Callawassie Drive. Before buying the Warsaw Island property, he was living at Tuck in the Wood Campground on St. Helena Island, he said.

His sudden interest in the road made Gardner suspicious.

But according to Gardner, it really wasn’t until July of 2018, when Adams put up a gate blocking the road – three years after he bought the property – that Gardner realized something was terribly wrong.

Asked if he bought the land believing it included the 30-foot road and boat ramp, Adams joked that he “wasn’t real intelligent.”

“What I normally do when I buy properties is I do my due diligence,” Adams said, later adding that it was his wife who questioned Gardner’s ownership of the road and ramp after finding a 1990 Quiet Title.

Three little words

Despite the history of the ramp’s use, the title for the land and a variety of documents Gardner has connecting his family to the road, the question of who rightfully owns the road and ramp now seems to hinge on a nearly 30-year-old judgment and three little words: “Save and Except.”

In 1990, after Charles’ mother died without a will, Gardner’s father sought to claim the land and settle with any potential heirs. The “Quiet Title action” awarded Leroy Gardner several lots totaling close to 20 acres. 

However, a 1.054-acre portion of one lot was awarded to John Howard, a relative who was given the strip of land by Ardelle Gardner’s uncle, Dan Taylor.

According to Page 11 of the judgment, Leroy Gardner owns all of Lot 15, “… Save and excepting, however, the 1.054 acre portion of Lot 15 situate immediately below (southeast) the unpaved Beaufort County road …”

The judgment goes on to state that the 1.054 acre is owned by John Howard.

And, on Page 12 the judgment says, “The unpaved county road separates the respective portions of Lot 15 owned by the Plaintiff (Leroy Gardner) and John Howard.”

The language is repeated and summarized on the final page of the judgment.

Judge Thomas Kemmerlin, Jr., who served as Master-in-Equity on the title clearance, died in 2010, but the language of his judgment and whether or not it could be interpreted in another way, would be called into question years later.

The Buckner Decision

If Adams purchased the property once belonging to John Howard, that meant he only owned the 1.054 acre portion, reasoned Gardner’s attorney at the time. So Gardner, thinking he had open and shut case, decided to take Adams to court.

However, in June of 2018, Judge Perry M. Buckner III of the 14th Judicial Circuit, handed down a partial summary judgment finding the road, the boat ramp and the property to the south belonged to Adams. 

The decision left many in the community scratching their heads. Could Buckner have looked only at Page 15, which seems to have more ambiguous language than Pages 11 and 12?

Gardner’s attorney, Bryan Raymond said that part of the basis for an appeal they have filed is that the Circuit Court erred in interpreting the Quiet Title Order from 1990. 

In addition, if there is ambiguity in the Quiet Title Order concerning the road and boat landing, the evidence does not show that Adams is the owner of the road or the landing.

“We believe there would likely be an adverse possession of the road due to the Gardners’ use of it, which makes it an implied easement,” added Raymond.

However Adams argues there are no right of ways on the property, including any made by SCE&G for a utility pole discovered across the road from Gardner and servicing Gardner’s house. 

“There is not one easement anywhere on this property,” he said.

Adams said after he and his wife did their “due diligence” and found the Quiet Title, they read it and decided that language on the final page means that Gardner owned Lot 15 “Save and Except” for the 30-foot dirt road owned by John Howard and therefore it now belongs to them.

Adams said unlike the Gardners and others in the community, he is only “going by the documents” which for him includes a Warranty Title. 

“It’s their pride that causes their problems, not the facts,” he said.

Just because the community has always used the road and boat ramp doesn’t make it right, he added. 

“For them to drive on this property that was not theirs and to try to claim it now, it was wrong then, and it’s wrong now,” he said. 

Despite the fact that a surveyor once told him he wouldn’t be able to build on the property, Adams said he would like to build a small home, about 1800 square-feet, on the property.

Adams tried to have the property surveyed again, and the property line re-drawn but that survey, conducted in Sept. of 2017 by Gasque & Associates, was stamped “Problem Plat – See Assessor” and referenced the Quiet Title. A few months later, Adams was sent a letter from the Beaufort County assessor’s office, informing him that the Quiet Title, did not grant him the road. 

With a court order in hand, Gardner attempted to have his own property surveyed along the road in 2018. Youmans, who also lives on Ashton Drive across from Gardner, along with Gardner and a few others from his family, were escorted onto the road by deputies from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. 

They were met at the gate by Adams who welcomed them, but about a third of the way through the survey, Youmans and the group were abruptly asked to leave by Adams.

In September of 2018, Gardner’s attorney sent a letter to the county asking that no other work be allowed on the road until the appeal is settled. A few months later, Judge Marvin Dukes III ordered an injunction stating that Adams could not build any permanent structures on the road or that would otherwise render the road permanently unusable. 

To this day, the gate remains shut and barrels line its front.

A class action

In January of 2019, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of those who say their work or livelihood has been negatively impacted by Adams’ closing of the road and boat ramp. Roughly 35 people have filed affidavits as part of the suit. 

While the landing is one of three on the island, it is the only one to provide access on that side of the island. “Distance and gas” is what make it preferable, many say.

Among those are Ed Atkins, owner and operator of Atkins Bait Shop on St. Helena Island. Atkins has used the ramp to get on and off Jenkins Creek for more than 50 years. His father used the ramp and his father before him, he said.

“This is how we made our living for many a many years,” he said.

The closing of the ramp is costing him money, now that he’s having to travel farther by truck and by boat.

“I’ve got to go at least 15 miles down the river, and then I’ve got to go back and I pass that ramp on the way,” he said. 

Not only is he spending about twice as much on gas, sometimes he has to go out twice a day to make up for the bait that dies on the way.

“More than a third die before I can get back to the shop,” he said. “It’s taking too long to get back.”

He does not understand why the road can’t stay open until the question of ownership is settled.

Neither does Scott Cheslak, another plaintiff in the suit. Cheslak operates the boats for Charles River Laboratories on Morgan Island, commonly referred to as Monkey Island. His work is part of a contract with the National Institutes of Health.

“We’ve been using the boat landing for over 10 years,” Cheslak stated in an affidavit. The proximity of the ramp to Morgan Island made it so the work took “little time and manpower,” he said.

Now that the landing is closed, operating the project’s three vessels requires much more time to complete the work. 

“This translates to an added cost to the project and to taxpayers,” he stated.

In addition to impacting livelihoods, many on the island feel that part of the community’s history and culture is being stolen as well.

“We grew up around here. We went swimming and crabbing and fishing. We used to go over to Pollawana, which is Dataw now, and we used to go over by boat every day,” said Georgia Champion. Champion and Gardner share the same great grandparents.

“So we know from our grandparents how that road was used and how that river was a source of income and a source of food. So to take that away is like trying to take part of our history and culture,” she said.

Things heat up

On July 11, 2018, deputies from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office arrived to inform Gardner he would no longer be able to use the 30-foot road to get to his property.

“I’ll never forget that date,” said Gardner. “We had no notification.”

Gardner was forced to move his vehicles and boat out of the garage since he will no longer be able to access that side of the house and anything parked inside will be blocked by a fence.

“They said you will have to make your own road,” Gardner said.

Friends and family members arrived the next day to help the 76-year-old cut a new road to his house while his wife, who was sick, remained inside. The new entrance is now off Ashton Drive. 

“It was heart wrenching,” said his daughter, Valerie Gardner, who was living in Atlanta at the time. “It made my father feel like he didn’t matter.”

Gardner said Adams frequently films or takes photos of him anytime he is in his yard, or has friends over, even when he is alone. 

Valerie Gardner, who recently moved from Atlanta to look after her parents in large part because of the situation, has started taking video and photos of Adams in return. She sends them to the family’s attorney.

Meanwhile, neighbors in the area said Adams frequently harasses them. 

“He follows people down the road and tries to fight with them,” said Champion, who has witnessed some of the confrontations. “He calls the police every week. They’ve been coming out constantly.”

In 2018, Adams called the sheriff’s department 40 times, on everything from trespassing to disturbances, to stolen property or suspicious activity, according to sheriff’s department records.

Neighbors said they are particularly concerned since Adams is often seen wearing a gun, his German Shepherd never far from his side.

Adams did not deny this. The very few times he’s had his gun, it’s because he’s felt threatened, he said. Everything he does is to defend himself, he added.

“I never start a fight with these people,” he said. “You have to watch your back. That’s what it feels like every time I’m around them. I have to watch my back because someone is going to turn loose on me.”

He said both he and his attorney have been physically threatened. He also said voodoo was involved, but could not offer up any specifics other than a smoke bomb that was left on his fence.

Asked if he feels he’s being treated unfairly or if his character is being maligned, he said he is “being beaten down every single day.”

Richard Williamson, who lives next door to the Gardners, said he met with Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner in the spring of 2018, on behalf of Gardner and the community. Like many, he cannot understand why the road has not been left open or a court order hasn’t been issued to keep it open.

“He said, until I get an order from a judge telling me what I can and cannot do out there, this is what has to happen,” Williamson said. 

Another round with Dukes

In May of 2019, after more than two years of sending warning letters and trying to reach Adams, DHEC fined him a total of $5,750 for a number of violations, including occupying the premises without an approved means for treatment and disposal of sewage and domestic wastewater.  He was ordered to vacate the premises. 

In July of 2019, about six months after Judge Dukes ordered Adams not to build any permanent structure on the road, neighbors watched incredulously as a Adams began digging up the road to install a septic system.

“In my opinion, that’s why he’s claiming the road,” said David Youmans, the assessor most familiar with the property from previous plats. “So he’ll have enough room for the septic system.”

On Sept. 11, Adams was called back before Judge Dukes to determine if he was in contempt of his earlier injunction. Dukes determined that what Adams has installed, part of a drainage field, does not render the road impassable or constitute a permanent structure since it could be dug up. 

The road was the only place he could put the drain field, Adams claimed.

While Dukes said he could not find Adams in contempt, he still admonished him.

“I wrote this order with the intent that basically everyone sort of leave that road alone,” Dukes said. “I had hoped and assumed that Mr. Adams wouldn’t do anything with the road, he would leave it completely alone, and y’all would wait to get the ruling. And so I am not happy with Mr. Adams for doing this without conferring with counsel.”

At the conclusion of the hearing, Adams turned toward several people in the courtroom there in support of Gardner and told them to “shut your mouth” and “kiss my ass.” He winked and smiled at his neighbors and continued to gesture until a sheriff’s deputy came over to calm the crowd.

Five days later, Adams was arrested for assaulting a neighbor, who has nothing do with the road dispute. 

Sick of glancing the mailbox or barrels Adams has placed in the narrow bend in the road, Joey Heyward stopped to take photos. His intention was to send them to the county administrator to see what could be done. 

Seeing Heyward stopped on the road, Adams ran out to confront him. As can be seen on a video obtained by The Island News, Adams threatened Heyward and began to get close to him. Heyward attempted to get back in his truck but Adams shut the truck’s door on his leg. Heyward called the police.

Heyward said he has a hard time getting his boat trailer in and out of Ashton Drive and has hit Adams’ mailbox by accident before.

 The week before the arrest, Heyward said Adams chased him down Warsaw Island Road and followed him to a gas station where Heyward called police. Adams filmed Heyward the entire time, he said, until the police arrived.

“He harasses everybody,” Heyward said.

At his bond hearing, Adams was ordered to turn over any firearms he owns. Heyward took out a restraining order soon after.

Waiting on a decision

Gardner and the plaintiffs in the class action suit have been told it could take years before their suits are settled. 

Asked if he would like to see the dispute solved peacefully, Adams said, “These people will not go to peace. They don’t want peace.” 

Asked if he would ever consider sharing the road, Adams said no.

In the meantime, Gardner still cannot go out into his yard without being filmed or photographed by his neighbor.

Gardner’s daughter, Valerie, said the dispute has taken a toll on their family. She has a brother in Atlanta who, along with some others, is helping with their father’s legal fees.

“We’re very tied up in knots over this whole thing,” she said. 

At times Gardner seems somewhat defeated, his shoulders slump forward when he is talking. At other times he is more animated, as if he still has some fight left.

“They thought I was just going to take it,” he said. “They thought I was going to lay down dead.”

The appeal is now with South Carolina’s Court of Appeals.

Above:

Ed Atkins shows a copy of a legal document showing ownership of the disputed parcel of land to Charles Gardner, left. Gardner says the land is his. He says he pays the taxes on it but can’t get any help regarding the current dispute with a man who appears to be homesteading on the property.

Valerie Gardner, left, daughter of Charles Gardner, discusses past legal action regarding ownership of the parcel of land in dispute.

One of many plot maps showing clear ownership and property lines of the disputed parcel of land on Warsaw Island.

The contested boat ramp.

A “No Trespassing” sign nailed to a wire fence post and evidence of piping system on the disputed parcel of land.

Richard Williamson, left, and Liz Santagati go over legal documents during their meeting Tuesday, Sept. 10, on Warsaw Island.

Ruben Adams, who has closed the road at the end of Warsaw Island Road denying the community access to the boat ramp.

Lumber balanced on 55-gallon drums, “Beward of the Dog” and “No Trespassing” signs and a “cattle fence” prohibit anyone from coming onto a parcel of land on Warsaw Island. Ownership of the land is in dispute while evidence of homesteading is clearly in view.

Photos by Bob Sofaly

 

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