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Myrtle Beach to feds: We don’t owe Horry County any campground money

J. Dale Shoemaker

The City of Myrtle Beach on Friday responded to an effort by Horry County to involve the Federal Aviation Administration in an ongoing dispute over beachfront campground land, arguing in a letter to the agency that the city doesn’t owe the county any proceeds if it sells the land.

The city and county have been newly clashing over the 145-acre plot of land between South Kings Highway and the Atlantic Ocean — known to tourists and residents as the Pirateland Camping Resort and the Lakewood Camping Resort — for months now. Late last year, Myrtle Beach City Council voted to sell the land to the two operators currently running the campgrounds, rankling county leaders.

The dispute over the property used for popular tourist destinations dates back to World War II, and involves stipulations the federal government has made for the land. The government can still take control of the land, even though Myrtle Beach currently holds the title to the property.

The renewed dispute — and federal involvement — comes as Horry County and Myrtle Beach emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and assess their respective financial positions. Both have experienced significant revenue losses, so both are currently working to recover.

County leaders have argued that decades-old stipulations from the federal government say any proceeds from the property need to help support a local airport — and Horry County has received about $2.7 million from the leasing of the land to the campgrounds to support the Myrtle Beach International Airport, which it controls.

But when Myrtle Beach leaders voted to sell the land, they said they’d use the sale money for city purposes, and wouldn’t share it with the county. County attorneys have disputed that in court, saying, first, they’re owed at least a portion of that money, and second, that the city shouldn’t be allowed to sell the land for less than it’s worth. The city previously assessed the land to be worth $76 million, while the campground owners assessed the land to be worth $46 million. The two parties agreed on a $60 million sale price for the land, but county attorneys argue the land should be sold for the full $76 million.

What the city’s letter said

In its letter to the FAA on Friday, Myrtle Beach City Attorney William Bryan wrote that Horry County, in its pursuit of the sale proceeds from the campground, engaged in “’distortion, exaggeration, or minimization of facts” and “stretching or omitting the facts to find the boundaries of the law’ designed to create rights where none exist.”

Bryan further argues that the FAA has known about this situation — and both government’s perspectives — for years now, seemingly questioning why the agency has agreed to get involved now.

Nothing has changed in that regard in the intervening 18 years, save for the FAA’s failure to take any action, despite being put on express notice of its (and the County’s) lack of interest or authority with respect to the Seascape Properties,” Bryan wrote. The campground properties are legally referred to as the Seascape Properties.

Bryan went on to write that when the county asked the FAA for a similar investigation into the issue in 2002, the agency did not respond.

For over 18 years, the FAA did not object to the City’s clear position, repeatedly stated in writing to the FAA, that (a) the City is under no obligation to devote funds from the Seascape Properties for “airport purposes,” (b) the City’s distribution of some of those funds to Horry County was purely voluntary, and (c) the FAA has no right to direct the City’s use of those funds,” the letter states.

A contentious history over the land

The campground land in question has a long and contentious history.

As World War II was entering its final stages, the federal government sought to offload land through the Surplus Property Act in 1944. Several years later, in 1948, the City of Myrtle Beach acquired the campgrounds through the act. The property was formerly used by the military as part of a U.S. Army air base.

When Myrtle Beach received the land, it came with a stipulation: that it be used for a public airport. The city later decided not to build an airport on the land, and the federal government agreed that it could be used for other purposes, provided that revenue from the property be used to support a public airport.

By 1958, the city had decided to dedicate funds from the land to the Myrtle Beach Airport at Crescent Beach. According to an agreement made at the time, Bryan argued in his letter, the federal government, South Carolina Aeronautics Commission and city said the funds would support that airport for 20 years.

In 1976, airport operations moved from the Myrtle Beach Airport at Crescent Beach to the currently-used Myrtle Beach International Airport. Horry County also took over control of the airport at this time. Bryan argued that the 20-year funding agreement ended in 1978 and wasn’t renewed.

The city and county engaged in back-and-forth litigation over the land throughout the 1980s, and Myrtle Beach began leasing the land to the current campground operators in 1990.

Conflict over the land continued into the 21st century, but by 2004, Myrtle Beach and Horry County agreed to settle their back-and-forth disputes about the property and devised a revenue sharing scheme. Under that agreement, Horry County receives 75% of the revenue generated from the properties, and Myrtle Beach receives 25%.

In his letter, Bryan argues that the city was not obligated to commit funds from the land to the airport at that time, but did so “voluntarily.”

Notably,” Bryan wrote about that 2004 agreement, “Horry County did not reserve to itself any right in sale proceeds from the Seascape Properties.”

City questions FAA involvement

Bryan concluded his letter by questioning if the FAA was acting improperly on behalf of Horry County, and wondered why the agency had agreed to investigate the matter after having not weighed in for nearly 20 years.

Certain aspects of your letter suggest that it may have been procured at the instance of Horry County as an improper litigation tactic, one that arguably the FAA is now an active participant in,” Bryan wrote.

Bryan was referring to the fact that Horry County sued the city in state court late last year, attempting to get a judge to halt the sale of the land. In January, a judge ruled against the city, and Bryan asserted that the county had turned to the FAA as part of its ongoing legal strategy, despite dropping the case in state court.

Clarification of what caused you to send this letter and whether it was at the instance, request, or suggestion of Horry County or any of its representatives, is therefore requested,” Bryan wrote.

Neither Horry County spokesperson Kelly Moore nor County Attorney Arrigo Carotti responded to a request for comment Friday evening.

For their part, Horry County Council members believe the proceeds from the land are necessary to keep the airport, which funnels hundreds of thousands of tourists to and from the Grand Strand each year, operational and beneficial to both the city and county.

“That airport benefits Horry County, but guess who it benefits the most? Myrtle Beach, because it’s right there, that’s where the tourism is,” County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner said yesterday. “If I was trying to do something with that money I would want it to go to the airport. That’s tourism, that’s the economic engine that drives everything here. Why would you want to take away from that?”