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For nearly four years, Beaufort County Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch and her husband, Gary, have been engaged in a mostly unsuccessful legal battle with the county over more than three acres it took from them to build the Bluffton Parkway.
As the lawsuits wind down, the couple now wants the county to refund property taxes between 2009 and 2012 on the portion of the property that wasn't taken by eminent domain. The Bensches sold that remaining land, about 6.8 acres, in December for $717,000.
The family claims it had no access to the land near Buckingham Plantation Drive during parkway construction and should not have to pay taxes for that period.
"It was the county who took away their access," Bensch family attorney Howell Bellamy wrote in 2011. "It would be tremendously unjust for the county to also charge them taxes for the property they can't enjoy one bit until the county finishes its work."
Several attempts this week to contact the Bensches for comment were unsuccessful.
County attorney Josh Gruber declined to comment on the lawsuits or the tax appeal.
Beaufort County used eminent domain in 2009 to take 3.3 acres of vacant land owned by a corporation the Bensches controlled near Buckingham Plantation Drive. The corporation, Towne Center LLC, retained about 6.8 acres.
The Bensches filed two lawsuits related to the land.
The first was in April 2009, before the county began eminent domain proceedings. The Bensches sought compensation for alleged county actions, related to a zoning dispute and dating to 2001, that they say devalued their property.
That suit was dismissed in December by Beaufort County then-Master-in-Equity Marvin Dukes III, who ruled the Bensches' claims were baseless and that in at least one case, the statute of limitations had expired.
The Bensches could appeal Dukes' decision. The county says it has spent more than $73,000 to defend itself in that case.
County spokeswoman Joy Nelson said she is not sure how much the county has spent on the second of the Bensches' lawsuits -- a claim that disputes the fair value of the 3.3 acres the county took for the parkway.
That suit ended in January 2012 when a jury awarded the family $1.65 million. Because that award was closer to the county's estimate than the Bensch's $3.79 million estimate, the county did not have to pay the Bensch's legal fees.
PROPERTY TAX APPEAL
Documents obtained in a public-records request indicate the Bensches sought property-tax relief on the Buckingham Plantation-area parcel several times in the past five years.
In January 2008, they wrote a letter seeking "a review and reduction" of taxes on the parcel when it was still 10 acres. They ultimately received the break; it wasn't immediately clear why the reduction was granted.
Records show their taxes dropped again in 2010, after the county took the 3.3 acres to build the parkway.
However, the Bensches also appealed their taxes in 2010 and 2011, claiming that loss of access to their remaining acreage rendered the property worthless.
Records show no reduction in assessed value in either of those years.
County assessor Ed Hughes confirmed this week that the Bensches' latest property-tax appeal is to come before the Tax Equalization Board on March 27.
He declined to comment on the case beyond confirming the hearing date.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.