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[Photo: One Black and white file photo of bicyclists with lighthouse in background]
The state's claim to ownership of the Morris Island lighthouse was dealt a setback last week, and continuing litigation could drag out a proposal to restore the historic structure for two more years, an attorney said.
The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission had hoped to get the lighthouse off Folly Beach for free and had preliminary plans to restore it.
Charleston County Master in Equity Roger Young, however, threw out the state's claim to ownership last week, saying the state should have filed a claim in a foreclosure lawsuit a year ago.
Columbia businessman Paul Gunter obtained the lighthouse from Goose Creek businessman S.E. "Speedy" Felkel in the foreclosure suit. Last October, Gunter offered to sell the lighthouse to the park commission for $100,000.
State legislators and park commissioners, who hoped to get the lighthouse for free, asked S.C. Attorney General Charles Condon to intervene and claim the lighthouse was owned by the state.
Condon sued, saying the lighthouse belonged to the state because it is below the mean high-water mark of the Atlantic Ocean. The lighthouse has been stranded in an inlet for decades, the island on which it sat having eroded away.
But Young said the state should have made the claim when the foreclosure hearing went to court last June, according to Gunter's attorney, Jamison Cox.
"We finished the foreclosure over a year ago, and if the state was going to bring a claim, it should have done so at that time", Cox said.
Gunter still is willing to sell the lighthouse for $100,000, Cox said.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Ken Woodington said the state will file a lawsuit this week to restate its claim to ownership of the lighthouse.
Six months were lost by trying to attach the state's claim to the foreclosure lawsuit, but more time could have been lost if the foreclosure case had gone to the Supreme Court, Woodington said.
"It's sort of a blessing in disguise", he said.
It could take two years to resolve the lawsuit to be filed this week, Woodington said.
"So it's still on hold", park commission Chairwoman Lee Roeber said. The commission will wait out results of the litigation to determine whether the state or Gunter owns the lighthouse, she said.
"We can't negotiate (to buy the lighthouse) until we find out who owns it", she said.
Last year, a private group of James and Folly island residents urged the park commission to buy the lighthouse. That Gunter was willing to sell the lighthouse presented a historic opportunity to place the venerable structure in the public's hands after being owned for the last 20 years by one of Felkel's businesses, they said.
The lighthouse, built on Morris Island in 1876, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of 752 traditional lighthouses remaining in the country.
In recent decades, tides have eroded the portion of Morris Island on which the lighthouse was built, and it now stands in 10 feet of water at low tide.
The Army Corps of Engineers has said it is prepared to conduct a structural survey of the lighthouse, but not until the ownership question is settled. Cox said Gunter is not willing to grant permission for the survey unless the park commission is prepared to negotiate.