As the threat of a legal battle nears, the owners of a dilapidated 21-story high-rise in Fort Mill Township are eyeing a plan that might save the tower from demolition and keep them out of court.
The plan would include refurbishing the tower's facade and cleaning up the grounds, said Carl Epps, attorney for MorningStar Ministries, the tower's owner.
York County officials are waiting on the proposal, which they discussed with the ministry Nov. 4. But while the county also wants to avoid a potentially costly, legal battle, County Manager Jim Baker said he doesn't know if MorningStar's proposal will satisfy the County Council.
"Although correcting the facade might justify some extra time for filling out the inside, we'd still want a detailed game plan and agreement for how the inside was going to be renovated as well" including proof the ministry can finance the renovations, Baker said.
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The ministry hopes to offer a concrete proposal before meeting with county officials and a third-party mediator in January to decide whether to take their dispute to court, Epps said. Mediation is a nonbinding way to resolve a dispute using a third party. It's also a required step before seeking legal action.
The tower, known as Heritage Tower, was built as part of former televangelist Jim Bakker's vision for the Christian vacation destination Heritage USA. The project tanked in the late 1980s when Bakker left, disgraced by scandal.
In 2007, the county wanted to demolish the tower. But when MorningStar came forward with a plan to renovate the tower into a spiritually-focused retirement community, the county accepted the proposal.
Today, no renovations have taken place. Ministry leaders have blamed the recession for the delay.
County leaders and some of the tower's neighbors claim it's an eyesore and unsafe. Bricks are falling off the facade. The building and a fence around it are not secure, they say.
The ministry had 180 days from when the county approved its site plan last year to show progress or else tear down the tower, county officials claim. The county contends the ministry has defaulted on the agreement.
But MorningStar disagrees, Epps said. Ministry leaders have questioned whether the county followed the terms of their agreement. If not, the ministry isn't in default, they say.
Several months have passed as the parties have argued their positions in letters. Setting up the mediation took several more months.
While "fix it up or tear it down" has been county leaders' stance on the tower, they would settle for proof that the ministry is financially able and ready to move forward with renovating the tower, Baker maintains.
Now the county is pursuing mediation, but it won't likely lead to a solution, Baker said. MorningStar has until the mediation to present a proposal, he said.
If the proposal is unsatisfactory, Baker said it would be "time to demolish. There's not a lot of middle ground. That's more of a question for a court instead of a mediator," Baker said.
Neighbors seek progress
At a neighborhood meeting Thursday night, several residents of nearby Regent Park asked county planning director Dave Pettine about the tower and if the county and ministry are closer to finding a solution.
Pettine, who came to discuss several county projects and the tower, told residents about the upcoming mediation and the proposal that MorningStar plans to submit.
Regent Park resident Jon Jarrett told The Herald he doesn't care whether the tower remains or is demolished, as long as there's progress either way. He also wouldn't mind if MorningStar improved the tower's appearance first and took more time to fix the interior.
"If done according to plans it could be a real asset to the county," he said.
But nothing's happened for years, he said. "How long does it really take to get something going?"
Chris Figueredo shared that sentiment.
"Everybody is very concerned that something needs to be done. It's gone on too long," said Figueredo who aligns herself with "people (the tower) bothers less."
Fixing the safety and aesthetic concerns would be a welcome change, "but people have a problem with the fact that things are agreed to and there's never any serious accomplishments in the right direction," she said.
Dan Ritchie said he's not sure entering another agreement with MorningStar to fix the facade will resolve anything.
"The county could agree to it, and it would just be one more thing that didn't get done."
Several attempts to reach Dave Yarnes, MorningStar's vice president and tower project supervisor, were unsuccessful.