by Paul Bowers
A neighborhood group based in Cannonborough-Elliottborough filed a lawsuit Wednesday to challenge the loss of tiny Dereef Park to a new residential development.
In the early 1980s, the lawsuit asserts, the City of Charleston received money from the federal Land & Water Conservation Fund to develop the tiny park on Morris Street, accepting in the process a covenant that guaranteed the park would be preserved indefinitely as a recreational space. But in 2003, the city entered a deal to sell the property to developer Civitas LLC. The land eventually changed hands to the Smith Morris Company LLC, which today plans to build the second phase of the Morris Square residential development on the site of the park.
Here's the thing about Dereef Park: In 2003, neighbors have said that the park was notorious for dereliction and drug use. As recently as 2006, a woman was found murdered in the park. But in July 2011, when a developer finally took steps toward building on the property, more than 200 residents in the rapidly up-and-coming Cannonborough-Elliottborough neighborhood signed a petition urging the city to halt development plans. The YMCA next to the park was using the playground for outdoor activities, and nearby churches were using it for picnics. But the petition came too late to stop the development.
What's surprising about the lawsuit is the list of defendants, which includes neither the developer who chose to build on the site nor the city officials who allowed the land's sale to a private interest. Instead, the advocacy group Friends of Dereef Park has lodged its complaint against the National Park Service; the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism and its director, Duane Parrish; Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell; and Phil Gaines, the state liaison officer for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. A spokesperson for the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism said the agency does not have a comment on the lawsuit while it is in litigation.
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants wrongfully approved the proposal to relocate the park in 2008 and seeks to have the matter remanded to the National Park Service.
Now that the new housing is slated to be built, Friends of Dereef Park is suing to preserve a rare patch of green space in the densely developed area. In order to comply with the stipulations that came with the Land & Water Conservation Fund money, the city sought permission to replace .84-acre Dereef Park with a .67-acre addition to Concord Park, which is over a mile away from Dereef Park near the S.C. Aquarium. The National Park Service granted approval, Dereef Park was demolished, and a historic African-American church building on the site of Dereef Park was relocated closer to Morris Street to make way for the new housing.
"They chopped a historic park into pieces and want to replace it with a site over one mile away where there are already lots of parks," Friends of Dereef Park Chairwoman Heather Templeton says in a press release about the lawsuit. "Families in the area want their history and their right to a recreational park respected and restored."