MorningStar Fellowship Church of Fort Mill is appealing a local judge’s decision that would keep the church from claiming $20 million in damages through a lawsuit against York County.
The lawsuit was filed more than two years ago after York County Council members declared MorningStar to be in default on a development agreement aimed at moving along renovations on a 21-story, unfinished hotel tower located on the church’s property near Regent Park in Fort Mill. The two sides have been at odds for several years, with county officials and some local residents wanting the church to tear down the building, which was constructed in the late 1980s.
The unfinished hotel tower is a remnant of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s former Heritage USA property. MorningStar bought the property in 2006.
Many residents are frustrated as the battle between York County and MorningStar over the tower’s fate stretches on, said David Yerty, president of the Regal Manor Homeowners Association. Regal Manor includes 10 residential developments along roads like A.O. Jones Boulevard and Regent Parkway, near the MorningStar tower.
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The homeowners association, Yerty said, has not taken sides with either the county or the church but is hoping for a quick resolution.
The dispute was headed to trial earlier this week. But first York County Circuit Court Judge Dan Hall needed to rule on a question of MorningStar’s ability to submit evidence related to its claims for damages.
MorningStar’s lawsuit alleges that York County didn’t properly approve site plans for the church’s redevelopment efforts, resulting in “the loss of the value of the tower” at nearly $12 million and potential profits from hotel residents valued at about $7.1 million, among other damages. The county has denied the church’s allegations, questioned the evidence related to the claimed financial loss, and called the deteriorating tower a “nuisance” in court filings.
This week, Hall ruled that MorningStar has not provided substantial evidence to back up its claims of more than $20 million in damages. By immediately appealing Hall’s order, MorningStar is asking that the S.C. Court of Appeals overturn the local court’s decision and allow a jury to hear evidence of its claims.
Attorneys for both sides said the timeline of an appeals court decision and a future trial date is unclear.
Dan Ballou, one attorney representing York County in the MorningStar case, said Hall’s exclusion of damages in the suit is a “positive development.” He declined to comment further, saying it was premature to speak publicly about pending litigation.
MorningStar’s attorney, Richard Fennell, said he hopes for a trial where his client’s evidence will be heard.
Judge: Church claims based on ‘conjecture’
Since the county declared the church in default of the development agreement in 2010, construction costs related to the planned tower renovation have increased, MorningStar’s lawsuit claims. But, Hall says the church’s evidence claiming to show those increased costs is based on “conjecture and speculation and is contradicted by its own experts.”
That evidence, Hall ruled this week, will not be admissible at a trial.
MorningStar also claims that it has spent between $819,000 and $1.2 million on engineering, marketing and architectural costs related to renovating the tower. That money, the church argues, would need to be spent again if MorningStar is allowed to complete the project.
But, based on testimony offered by church officials during a pre-trial deposition, MorningStar “has made no attempt to verify whether any of the expenses must in fact be incurred again,” according to Hall’s order.
In the lawsuit, MorningStar is seeking $7.1 million in damages that church officials say represents the money it would have made from tower unit reservations had the county not declared the church in default. Hall also rejected that claim. The church has not submitted evidence showing that any customer withdrew tower reservations because of the county’s action, Hall’s order states.
By asking for $7.1 million, “MorningStar has simply proposed a number... which it contends, without any objectively measurable support, constitutes an amount of lost income over the next five years on a project that was not complete and had no funding in place,” Hall wrote.
Whether MorningStar had the money to finance or pay for tower renovations was questioned by county officials when the church was found in default on the development agreement.
The county claims that after its staff approved MorningStar’s plan to redevelop the tower, MorningStar failed to prove by a stipulated deadline that it could pay for the project. Church officials argue they didn’t realize their deadline to provide financial information had passed until it was too late.
MorningStar also challenged how it was told about the redevelopment plan’s approval. MorningStar believes the approval should have been sent to Rick Joyner, MorningStar’s president, instead of the project engineer. Also, while both sides agree the county was not obligated to deliver the approval by certified mail, MorningStar officials say that method is what they expected.
The county wanted to keep the certified mail question from a jury. But Hall ruled in favor of MorningStar presenting its views to jurors.
Should MorningStar lose its case against York County for breach of contract, the church could be forced to demolish the tower.
County officials have wanted the tower torn down for many years but agreed to allow for renovations under the now-disputed development agreement with the church. In legal filings, county officials have recently said the old tower has a “progressively deteriorating shell” and “has dominated the Fort Mill skyline for a generation.”
Still, MorningStar officials say the tower has value and is structurally sound.