Land at center of York County museum lawsuit to be sold for new homes

adouglas@heraldonline.comDecember 20, 2013 

— The Culture and Heritage Foundation of York County plans to sell about 274 acres of land along the Catawba River near Fort Mill to Crescent Communities for a “master-planned” residential and commercial project.

Crescent, based in Charlotte, intends to use the land as part of a 556-acre community near Sutton Road and I-77. The number of homes and businesses that will be included in the project has not been determined, company officials said Friday. Market studies are incomplete. Crescent already owns 282 acres adjacent to the foundation’s property.

The 274 acres that the foundation wants to sell has been the focus of a legal dispute between the nonprofit group and York County Council for several months. The dispute centers on how proceeds from any sale of the land should be used.

The land was donated to the foundation in 1998 by Jane Spratt McColl. At the time, the group’s only mission was to support York County museums. But in 2012, the foundation decided to support other organizations across South Carolina. County council members, who want to ensure any proceeds from a land sale exclusively benefit York County museums, sued the foundation in June.

The county claims McColl wanted her land to be used solely for the public museum system. But the foundation says the gift was designated to the Culture and Heritage Foundation to use as it wishes.

An affidavit filed by the foundation’s attorney quotes McColl as saying she wants the foundation to use her gift as it wishes. The donation, McColl said, was intended for the foundation, not the county.

In July, county officials asked Jack Kimball, York County master-in-equity, to issue a temporary injunction banning the foundation from selling the land. York County alleges a foundation subsidiary – Sustainable Development Group – planned to “wrongfully dispose of funds and property” intended to benefit its museum system. One month later, Jane Peeples, chairwoman of the subsidiary, signed an affidavit stating that the foundation had no “planned sales” at the time nor was the McColl property listed for sale.

Kimball denied the county’s request.

On Friday, after Crescent announced its plans to buy the land, the foundation’s board chairman, William Easley, said the company approached the foundation about a purchase a couple of months ago. He expects the sale will be completed by mid-2014.

The lawsuit, Easley said, should not impact Crescent’s purchase. He declined to comment further on the suit.

The company is aware of the lawsuit but is “confident and hopeful” of a settlement soon, said Crescent Senior Vice President Keith Glenn. A “clean title” for Crescent to buy the property is important, he said, declining to comment further because the company is not involved in the lawsuit.

The Fort Mill project would be Crescent’s first in the Charlotte area in nearly seven years, according to the company. Development is expected to begin by the end of next year. It may take at least a decade for the development to be built out fully, Glenn said.

The pace of development, he said, will rely heavily on market forces.

“Crescent Communities has experienced significant growth in the region,” Glenn said. “The greater Charlotte area continues to grow, and York County has a major need for new homes that offer the balanced lifestyle today’s families desire. It’s a lifestyle choice that we’re seeing reflected in many major residential areas across the country.”

The Fort Mill property “has a rich history and beautiful topography with its river views, forests and quarry, and we intend to preserve its character,” Glenn said. The development “emphasizes genuine experiences, life’s simple pleasures and a strong sense of community.

“Amenities such as walking and hiking trails and green spaces will honor the land and create a space where our residents can connect with the outdoors and with each other.”

The land is historically significant because some areas contain Catawba Indian Nation burial grounds. The community’s construction will be guided by a development agreement with the Town of Fort Mill and an agreement with the Catawba Indian Nation and several state agencies to protect archeological discoveries on the property.

“The cultural heritage of this land is very important to the Catawba Indian Nation and we are confident Crescent will adhere to the conditions of the agreement to maintain its historic significance to the region,” said Catawba Indian Nation Chief Bill Harris in a news release.

The company has met with Catawba Indian Nation leaders, and Glenn said he believes that respecting the Indian Nation’s wishes is one of the most important aspects of pending development.

Crescent has asked the town of Fort Mill to approve an annexation and rezoning request for the 282 acres it already owns.

“It would become one of the largest projects” in Fort Mill, said town Planning Director Joe Cronin.

Last week, Fort Mill Planning Commission members unanimously approved Crescent’s request to build up to 650 homes on the land it already owns.

The final decision rests with the Fort Mill Town Council, which is expected to vote in February on the annexation and rezoning requests. The town votes on Crescent’s plans on Feb. 10.

If approved, the rezoning will change the land’s designation from planned development to mixed-use to allow homes, recreational development and some businesses. The foundation’s land, which is already in Fort Mill, is zoned for mixed-use development.

McColl’s initial land donation in 1998 consisted of nearly 400 acres. In 2005, the foundation partnered with a North Carolina company, Cherokee Investment Partners, to develop a portion of the land. But that deal fell through, and the foundation ended up owing Cherokee about $4.5 million. The foundation later sold part of the land to the Fort Mill School District and the Carolinas HealthCare System.

After the sale to Crescent, the foundation will be left with 60 acres from McColl’s initial donation. Foundation leaders plan to set aside that land for public use.

Foundation and county leaders have said they’d like to see the 60 acres used for a new museum.

Easley said that, as McColl intended, “the sale will enable the Foundation to fund future initiatives benefiting the citizens of York County.”

Glenn said Fort Mill is an attractive place for his company because of the potential for more growth and the school district’s positive reputation.

Neither Crescent nor Easley, the foundation board chairman, would disclose how much the company will pay the foundation for the 274 acres.

York County’s growing population is part of what attracted Crescent’s sizable investment in Fort Mill, Glenn said. The county’s population has increased at a rate nearly twice that of the state as a whole in the past two years and new services and businesses are coming to the area to serve the new residents, Crescent officials said Friday.

Crescent’s large residential development could incorporate neighborhood retail and office space and a multi-family element but no additional details about specific businesses were available on Friday.

Future commercial sites would likely be on the property the foundation currently owns, which is close to I-77.

The foundation’s land also offers important access points to Crescent’s land from Sutton Road and I-77.

Crescent recently announced new phases for two other York County master-planned communities – Chapel Cove in Lake Wylie and Springfield in Fort Mill – and has begun development on a new master-planned community in Hillsborough, N.C.

The company’s portfolio includes 22 master-planned communities and 15 multifamily projects with 4,295 units under construction or in planning or pre-development. The company owns and manages approximately 42,118 acres, including 800 acres zoned for commercial use.

Anna Douglas 803-329-4068

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