Sued by developers at 93, Hilton Head great-grandmother fights for her Jonesville Road land
“This land’s been in the family since the Civil War.”
Standing in the middle of the property she’s called home for the last 30 years, Josephine Wright, 93, shared her family’s history over the clangor of power tools, construction trucks. The parcel had once belonged to her husband, a Gullah Geechee islander, before it passed to her after his death in 1998.
He died on the property his family had owned for over 100 years, Wright said, ever since the plantations’ former slaves were freed by Union troops. The couple had seven children of their own, and today, Wright has a legacy of 40 grandchildren and 55 great grandchildren, including a great grandson born two weeks ago.
“I want this to stay in the family,” Wright said.
At 1.8 acres, the parcel once meshed seamlessly with the abundant landscape surrounding it, its two small homes surrounded by healthy greenery. Now, it’s an oasis enveloped by the stretches of dusty, clear-cut land that will soon be home to the Bailey’s Cove housing development, a 29-acre neighborhood with 147 housing units.
Wright and her granddaughter, Charise Wright, believe the development company wants to take their land as well, and are using a lawsuit to do it.
Josephine Wright has been sued by the company constructing Bailey’s Cove, Bailey Point Investment LLC, over three encroachments they say bleed onto the 29 acres of land they’ve purchased, currently worth $5.8 million. According to county property records, it was worth $1.64 million the year before.
The construction started without warning, Josephine Wright said. She wasn’t aware the development was beginning until she woke up one day to construction trucks and saws removing the forested land that previously surrounded her parcel.
Developments like Bailey’s Cove drove the residents of Jonesville Road to create the Jonesville Preservation Society late last year. It is a local movement which has petitioned the town of Hilton Head to work against over-development of the island’s limited remaining land. Shortly after the society’s creation, the town purchased a 12-acre parcel on Jonesville Road, which had previously been the potential site for another housing complex of 100 units.
Following that victory, Jonesville residents continued to oppose development in the historic and culturally significant Gullah neighborhood, which is also home to swaths of ecologically sensitive wetlands.
The property’s co-owner and Wright’s former daughter-in-law, Delores Wright, is also named in the suit. Delores Wright moved away from the property in February, citing the stress of living next to the construction site.
The encroachments listed in the lawsuit include the property’s shed, the house’s screened back porch and a broken satellite dish.
Wright and her granddaughter, Charise Wright, suspect the lawsuit was filed to put financial pressure on their family and coerce them into selling the land.
Charise Wright said they’ve paid $1,900 to remove the shed, on top of ongoing legal fees to contest the suit. Josephine Wright confirmed the satellite dish has also been removed since the suit was launched, but neither she nor her family members were the ones who moved it.
“(The shed) is not impeding anything, and what they’re doing is just to financially hurt us at this point,” Charise Wright said. “You hear about it, but to actually live it and see it happening to somebody you love, it’s horrible. They want us to cut the back porch, too.”
“They want this whole thing,” Josephine Wright told The Island Packet, gesturing across her property. “I made a little joke, I said to one of my children, ‘Maybe I better watch where I’m going, who knows what could happen to a little old lady.’”
The Wright family’s answer to Bailey Point Investment’s lawsuit references a “consistent and constant barrage of tactics of intimidation, harassment, and trespass,” including workers coming onto her property to litter and cut the family’s shrubs and tree branches, “causing dirt and debris to cover her automobile, house and contents.”
The developers have called into question whether Wright technically owns the property at all, the family’s attorney said.
“They have raised that issue, yes,” said Roberts Vaux, Josephine Wright’s lawyer and a partner in the Bluffton-based Vaux Marscher Berglind law firm. “They don’t specify why they think she doesn’t own the property.”
After an email and phone call attempting to get a response, Bailey Point Investment’s attorneys could not be reached for comment.
Vaux told The Island Packet he can’t determine why the developers have brought their suit, but added he’s seen large companies use legal action against smaller land owners to apply financial pressure and force a sale, like the Wrights suspect.
“I can’t say that that’s what these people (Bailey Point) are doing, but that’s something that I’ve seen in the last 51 years practicing law on Hilton Head Island and in Beaufort County,” Vaux said. “If in fact that’s what they’re doing, which I don’t know that it is, but if it is, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen it.”
Charise Wright said the question of ownership was never raised by anyone, including county or local government, until the development began.
“She’s been paying taxes every single year since she’s been here and never had a problem. Now, all of a sudden, these developers are coming around, and (saying) now she doesn’t even own her land,” Charise Wright said.
The company has even attempted to go around her and negotiate with her family members, Josephine Wright said.
“They started negotiating with my grandson (who also lives on the property),” Wright said. “I had to put a stop to that. He told my niece that (the company) will try to say I’m senile. I said, ‘Let them talk to me. They’ll know right away that there’s nothing senile about me.’”
Offers have been made for the family’s land in the past, all of them rejected. In 2018, Wright said a buyer offered $39,000 for the plot.
“I hung up on them,” she said.
While two of the three encroachments Bailey Point named in its lawsuit have since been removed, the family said they refuse to alter their home’s back porch. Vaux said the porch doesn’t cross onto the company’s land at all.
“If you look at the survey line, that’s just patently untrue,” Vaux said. “The whole thing just doesn’t add up to me. You don’t buy a piece of property that size and start that kind of development without knowing what it is you’re buying. ... This isn’t their first rodeo.”
The lawsuit is entering the discovery phase now, Vaux said.
While the Wrights are the only neighbors the company has taken legal action against, other residents are feeling the construction’s impact as well.
Bobby and Duchess Raehn live across the road from Josephine Wright. The pair’s backyard has now become host to a retention pond developers dug out, despite a 2018 email from the town promising the developer’s “intent is to not disturb the land behind your property.”
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Raehn said.
Ultimately, the Wrights said they understand that the neighboring property has been sold and the new owners can build whatever they wish - they only want to retain their family’s land in the process.
“We just want what we have. I don’t care that you’re constructing, things evolve, I understand that,” Charise Wright said. “This is a hot spot tourist attraction island. Every inch of land that they can build a house on, they’re going to build it.”