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Litchfield Plantation: New owner looks beyond lawsuits to see value in history

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

It will be at least 18 months before any development resumes in Litchfield Plantation, the new owner of the development company said this week.

And John Miller, president of Litchfield Plantation Co., said he hopes a series of lawsuits left in the wake of the last developer will be settled much sooner.

There are six pending suits involving the property, which was also the subject of suits between property owners and former developers in the 1980s and 1990s. “That’s been the whole problem there,” Miller said. “I want to make this a happy place again.”

Miller, a DeBordieu resident, bought the Litchfield Plantation Co. from Louise Parsons in April. That gave him ownership of 71 acres of high ground that can be developed, the 18th century plantation house, a 68-slip marina and other amenities.

Miller said he couldn’t comment on the price, but noted the property was first shopped around at $10 million to $12 million in March 2010 and that figure was soon reduced by half.

The former president of Litchfield Plantation Co., Scott Trotter, arranged a buyout deal with Parsons in 2009, but that was on the eve of the recession that brought real estate sales to a standstill. Trotter told property owners in April 2010 he was looking for a buyer “to provide patient money to weather this real estate storm.”

At the same time, he said the company would no longer be able to fund its share of operations and maintenance of the amenities through the homeowners association. Trotter was also president of that group, the Litchfield Plantation Association.

In February this year, property owners voted Trotter out as association president, then went to court to have that decision validated and block Trotter’s effort to levy an additional assessment on the property owners. In June, members of the new association board filed a complaint with the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office saying Trotter assigned notes and mortgages worth $2.1 million that were payable to the association to his own company, the Litchfield Plantation Buyout Group. That led to Trotter’s arrest for grand larceny.

Another suit, filed just days before Miller acquired the Litchfield Plantation Co., seeks payment of over $100 million in loans, including one that dates to 1970. That suit was brought by Allan Kidston, who served as president of Litchfield Plantation Co. during Parsons’ ownership. Parsons and her first husband, Young Smith, started the development in the 1960s. It continued after she married Don Parsons in 1973.

Miller wasn’t surprised by the suits. “I did a lot of research on it before purchasing the company,” he said. “Naturally it’s going to take some time to unwind all the legal situations.”

In court filings since Miller took over, the Litchfield Plantation Co. has called the Kidston suit “frivolous.” It has opposed the property owners’ claim to control the Litchfield Plantation Association board, though Miller said this week he basically agrees with the owners. “Yet we have to work through it legally,” he said.

The company has still not received records it requested from Trotter and his attorney, Charles Nation, in April. In a court filing last month, Nation opposed an effort by the company to subpoena the documents, saying some contained Trotter’s private financial information and others were produced by his law firm but never paid for. The company owes “substantial sums of money for the information requested,” Nation told the court. He asked the court to require payment before the documents are released.

“I would like to try to get through it by the end of the year,” Miller said, adding that he still doesn’t have access to the company offices.

Beyond the legal problems, “it’s a beautiful piece of property,” Miller said.

That was his impression when he first saw it in the 1980s. “As everything grew up around it, it got left behind,” Miller said.

A North Carolina native, Miller worked in construction in the Charlotte area in the 1980s, building shopping centers for Edens and Avant, a developer based in Columbia. Edens and Avant was also completing development of DeBordieu at the time. Miller came down to play golf and ended up buying a lot.

Since moving to the area in the late 1990s, Miller has been involved in the development of Craven’s Grant. It sold 230 of 292 lots overlooking Winyah Bay before the market collapsed. No homes have been built and lots that once sold for up to $200,000 have been bought back in foreclosure sales for as little as $500, Miller said.

He also developed Beneventum Plantation on the Black River for 161 single-family lots. None have sold. “We’re just sitting there waiting for something to happen,” Miller said.

With funding from private investors rather than institutional investors, Miller said he is able to be patient.

He wants to create a master plan for the undeveloped property at Litchfield Plantation, which is zoned for residential use with about 17 acres designated for “resort commercial” use. Miller also wants to create design standards that will apply throughout the property, which will require the agreement of existing property owners.

“The main thing is to work with the existing property owners,” Miller said. “If they’re happy, everything will come together with a good plan.”

Future development will be single-family. “Nice homes, smaller lots,” Miller said. But the details won’t emerge until closer to the start of development. “It depends on the market. You can’t plan that far out,” he added.

Unlike a start-up development, Litchfield Plantation comes with amenities already in place. “The amenities are already paid for, which makes a difference,” Miller said. “I’m ahead of the game.”

And there’s one more advantage to Litchfield Plantation that Miller hopes to unlock.

“You can’t develop history,” he said. “The history is there.”

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