By Tom Robinson
Article taken from the Charleston Mercury Published: Friday, December 23, 2011 3:08 PM EST
In Robert Frost’s beloved poem “Mending Wall,” neighbors civilly debate the validity of the old adage “good fences make good neighbors” during the annual repairing of a stone wall separating their New England properties. On John’s Island another debate over the good and bad aspects of fences, gates, dirt roads, wayward cows and pristine swimming pools has wrecked the relationship between formerly friendly neighbors. It is also the sign of the larger issue over the agricultural future of John’s Island
The Legare family has farmed land on John’s Island since 1725. The current Legare farm has been in the family since the 1830s. The 300-acre farm sits about a half mile from River Road, between the Jenkins Farm and the Stono River. Siblings Thomas Legare, Jr., Helen Legare Floyd and Linda Legare Berry actively work the farm and live on homesteads gifted by their father upon his death.
There are several other people living on parcels adjacent to the Legare pasture land. Among them is the Hughes family: William “Billy” Hughes, his physician wife Beth Hughes, and their two children. The Hughes acquired their waterfront home in 2005, which included a 50-foot ingress-egress easement through the Legare farm and the Jenkins farm out to River Road. Access to the three Legare, Hughes and other homes has been via a dirt road cut during the 19th-century that lies within the easement. Like most dirt roads, it is subject to minor flooding during heavy rains and rutting. Yet it remains passable, even for a low-slung corvette owned by one of the neighbors.
A metal farm gate sits at one edge of the Legare farm, preventing the beef cattle from escaping onto the Jenkins farm. At the other end, the Hughes property is surrounded by a six-foot high wooden fence with a similar metal gate opening to their driveway. Not too long after the Hughes moved in, a tenant renting a garage apartment apparently left that gate open and one of the Legare cows ended up in the Hughes’ swimming pool. Apparently, all had a good laugh.
Six years later, cows and fences are no longer a laughing matter. The Hughes have sued the Legare family, asking for 1) a fence to be built along both sides of the one-mile stretch from the Jenkins-Legare gate to the Hughes property to prevent cattle from roaming across the dirt road and to prevent cattle from entering the Hughes property, and 2) to maintain the dirt road itself as to allow passage of the property owners and emergency vehicles. The Hughes’ expectation for use and quiet enjoyment of their property afforded by the easement is quite reasonable according to Joseph Qualey, the plaintiff’s attorney. He further stated to this reporter that at night in a dark and isolated place, it is dangerous or at least frightening for the wife (Dr. Hughes) to have to get out of the car to open the gate, drive through and get out of the car again to close the gate, and to drive down a dark road upon which the black cows might not be seen.
Nothing is as simple as it appears at first blush. Consider the facts of the case, which are not so simple. Consider the sudden change in the once-friendly relationship. And consider the larger impact on John’s Island of country folks and city folks cohabitating.
The ultimate determination of liability rests on several tenets. The suit alleges that the Legares must provide a “roadway.” The legal document actually requires the Legares provide an R/W, which in legal jargon means “right of way.” That interpretation would not even call for any road, much less a well maintained one. The other important concept is the South Carolina Code, Title 46, Chapter 45 regarding nuisance suits related to agricultural operations. The General Assembly finds that:
(1) The policy of the State is to conserve, protect, and encourage the development and improvement of its agricultural land and facilities for the production of food and other agricultural products.
(2) When nonagricultural land uses extend into agricultural areas, agricultural operations often become the subject of nuisance suits and as a result
(a) agricultural facilities are sometimes forced to cease operations, and
(b) many persons are discouraged from making investments in farm improvements or adopting new technology or methods.
(3) This chapter is enacted to reduce the loss to the State of its agricultural resources by limiting the circumstances under which agricultural facilities and operations may be considered a nuisance.
(4) The purpose of this chapter is to lessen the loss of farmland caused by common law nuisance actions which arise when nonagricultural land uses expand into agricultural areas. This purpose is justified by the stated social desire of preserving and encouraging agricultural production.
There are some other sticking points regarding land descriptions, ownership of properties and other technicalities. In an ironic counterpoint, cattle once escaped when the Jenkins-Legare gate was left open — presumably by the Hughes. It was the Legares who suffered damage to their own crops planted on land leased from Jenkins.
More poignant than the legal battle is the deterioration of the relationship between once-friendly neighbors and the circumstances surrounding the suit. Since 2005, the Hughes and Legares enjoyed each other’s company. The Hughes daughter was a good friend of Linda Legare Berry’s daughter. They rode horses together and built a tree fort in the woods on the Legare property. When the Hughes bought the property from a Mr. Thames (not from the Legares), Billy Hughes also bought the tractor and blade that Thames often used to scrape the dirt road. Hughes himself helped maintain the road using that tractor. Dr. Hughes was the physician for the sibling group and their mother Ann Legare, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
The Legares claim they never knew the Hughes’ were upset. They believed the road was in better shape than when the Hughes bought in 2005. Helen first learned about the suit when attorneys from Roper Hospital, which owns Dr. Hughes’ practice, notified the family that Dr. Hughes would no longer care for the ailing mother because of the pending suit. The initial suit actually named Ann Legare, the patient of Dr. Hughes, and Thomas, Jr. (although he at the time did not own the property). Thomas, who was running for County Council, was served papers at a candidate debate event in Edisto. He had supported the opponent of Joe Qualey, who was also running for council in a different district. Was that a coincidence or bad blood? Either way, it adds to the soap-opera-like nature of this conflict.
Both Cynthia O’Dell, the Legares’ attorney, and Mr. Qualey hope that the matter can be settled without the trouble and further expense a jury trial would entail.
That may not be enough. The Legare Farm is a small family business that is just scraping by. Although they raise vegetables and nursery stock, beef cattle and layers, their main source of income is agri-tourism. That entails education of children who need to know where food comes from. Linda says that teachers and adults need it more. “One teacher pointed to a cow and said ‘children, that’s a bull because he has horns,’” she laughs. “She needed to check the other end.” The farm also hosts field trips, birthday parties and a summer camp. The Travel Channel may come by to do one of their renowned sand sculptures in concert with a Civil War re-enactment there.
If they were to lose this suit, the Legares would be forced to sell the farm. The cost of putting in 10,000 feet of fence would exceed $50,000. They don’t have that kind of money. The Hughes’ are well-to-do. “They have a house worth $1.5 million,” says Helen. “They have unlimited money to pursue this; we don’t.”
Curiously enough, the ubiquitous yellow Carolina One sign sits outside the Hughes fence. The property is for sale.
More disturbing yet is not the Legare-Hughes feud, but what it symbolizes. In January of this year, the Mercury ran a story on the potential for disaster if the Sosnowski children were to sell their parcel of the historic family plantation on Wadmalaw Island to developers. That would be a travesty for the rarified mecca. Yet John’s Island is even more vulnerable. It has Charleston City nipping at its suburban flanks. The specter of I-526 bisecting it on the way to elite Seabrook Island and Kiawah and greasing the skids for chain restaurant strip-store tackiness is already discernible.
Many people believe that our society is in danger, and that a return to local agriculture is not just a buy-local marketing ploy for restaurants like Husk and S.N.O.B., but a path to survival. The little spat — case number 2010-ES-io-1438 — is less about scary black cows terrorizing Range Rovers on 19th-century dirt roads than it is about the scary destruction of essential life-giving farms.