Horses and RVs a volatile mix in S.C.

If a name determines destiny, Blue Sky—as in “creative or visionary and unconstrained by practicalities”—Associates might want to give it another go. “Stormy weather” might be more like it.

For more than two years, Blue Sky Associates has been trying to develop an RV campground in the middle of South Carolina’s horse country, along the North Carolina border and in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And for more than two years it has been enmeshed in a running battle with the local equestrian set, which just doesn’t see itself rubbing elbows with—well, you know. With people who don’t know the difference between a hock and a stifle.

Now the whole contretemps has escalated to DefCon 1, having ratcheted past permit hearings, court challenges, revised plans, various reversals and, as of two weeks ago, a defamation lawsuit. At a superficial level, the battle is between a community trying to preserve an established way of life and a landowner attempting to exercise his property rights. Drill down a bit, however, and what you find is an entitled group of affluent hobbyists facing down a tone-deaf developer whose default mode is to steamroll any opposition. Throw in a permitting process that apparently seeks to avoid controversy by disclosing as little as possible, and you have all the elements of a spectacular meltdown.

On one side is Spartanburg-based realtor William A. McDaniel, who for reasons yet unknown decided he’d like to build a small RV park on 38.68 acres he had purchased in September, 2020 for $325,000. The listing at that time advertised the property as a “great opportunity for development, housing and private homesite. Mountain view and creek border. Horse country.” The development was to be known as T. Tree Farms RV Park, also for reasons still unknown, and was to comprise a modest 50 or so sites and a 400-square-foot office, with plans for adding an equally modest swimming pool and patio at some future date.

As new RV parks go, in other words, a more unobtrusive and even self-effacing proposal would be hard to imagine. But—as already mentioned—this is horse country.

Surrounding the proposed RV park are literally thousands of acres of protected land. A key piece of the mosaic is Greenspace of Fairview, created in 2001 by Madelon Wallace—ironically, also a realtor and owner of Walker, Wallace & Emerson Realty, “specializing in equestrian, residential, land, conservation and estate properties.” Greenspace encompassed Fairview Farms, a thoroughbred horseracing facility, and reserved roughly two-thirds of its 1,331 acres as commonly held open space; the balance is apportioned among 13 shareholders as residential farms of at least 25 acres apiece. Neighboring properties also have development restrictions, including various land trusts and conservation covenants and easements, affecting an additional 4,000 acres or so, and all fall within the county’s Conservation Focus Area, which among other things prohibits “intense incompatible nonresidential development.”

Wallace, no surprise, quickly became one of McDaniel’s chief antagonists, circulating a petition that by now has nearly 900 signatures demanding that he go away. Equally unsurprisingly, Greenspace of Fairview has been named as one of four defendant associations in McDaniel’s defamation lawsuit, which claims Blue Sky has suffered “injury to reputation, both personal and professional; embarrassment; humiliation; mental and emotional suffering; lost income” and mounting legal fees from fighting a growing litany of “meritless challenges.” The four homeowner associations, in turn, responded with a lawsuit April 28 that asks the Spartanburg Court of Common Pleas to toss the planning commission’s latest approval of the campground, reached in March on a 6-2 vote.

Yet while a 6-2 decision might seem pretty decisive, the planning commission has done little to establish itself as an honest broker. After the RV park plan was first submitted in early 2021, the proposal was placed on the commission’s agenda for conditional approval just three weeks later—the zippiest of fast tracks. Moreover, public notice of the agenda was posted only a week prior to the meeting, and the notice neglected to mention where the RV park was to be located. Nor is there a county requirement for local property owners to be notified of development plans, which means that anyone with a possible interest in the matter was left in the dark until after the Blue Sky plan got its initial go-ahead. That might raise eyebrows in most precincts but Spartansburg’s commissioners were unabashed, insisting they’d done everything by the book and that the Blue Sky application “complied with all regulatory requirements”—nothing to see here!

All of which explains why emotions have been running high for more than two years, with local resistance coalescing around the debatable contention that a 50-site RV park qualifies as “intense incompatible nonresidential development.” Maybe—or maybe an RV park, no matter how limited, just rubs people with a certain lifestyle the wrong way. But because they were sandbagged, those people have been forced into a “let’s throw everything we can at the wall and see what sticks” strategy that risks provoking cynicism: the planned septic system is too small (although the state disagrees), the septic system is a threat to local waterways, area roads are too narrow and twisty for RV traffic, the parcel overlooks a habitat for two of the state’s rarest plants, the dwarf-flowered heartleaf and the ashy hydrangea. Indeed, the septic claims have prompted the non-profit South Carolina Environmental Law Project to join the fray on behalf of the homeowners’ associations, further roiling the waters.

McDaniel and Blue Sky, on the other hand, have done little to ingratiate themselves with their putative neighbors, at best setting themselves up for years of brittle relations that promise to make camping at T. Tree Farms RV Park an unpleasant experience. The arrogance behind Blue Sky was nowhere as evident as in a Fox News interview with Alex Shissias, the company’s attorney, whose bottom line seemed to be: “The last time I checked, this is America, and you’re allowed to do with your land what you want to do.”

Well, no—as Shissias the lawyer already knows, which is why he was appearing before the Spartanburg County planning commissioners. But Shissias the mouthpiece also knows his paymaster’s views, and with his comment reflected that patron’s overbearing impatience with others’ views and interests. All of which is to say, there’s little chance this will end well.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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