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Courts: Wachesaw couple settles suit over equestrian center
By Jason Lesley
Directors of Wachesaw Plantation Club and a disgruntled member agreed to settle a lawsuit over the development’s equestrian center rather than let the case go to a jury in Circuit Court in Georgetown this week.
Wachesaw Plantation residents Wes and Lisa Everett sued the private club in 2009, complaining they had been defrauded because the club closed the equestrian center shortly after they bought a $900,000 house. Both the Everetts testified the equestrian center was the reason they decided to move from Chapel Hill, N.C., to the gated community in Murrells Inlet.
“I had no idea they were in the midst of shutting it down,” Wes Everett testified. The suit accused the club of false advertising and deceptive trade practices, among its 17 allegations.
Everett said he grew up around horses and his children had taken riding lessons. He said he was “reasonably familiar” with horses but resisted a defense lawyer’s attempt to portray him as an equestrian expert.
The lawyers for Wachesaw Plantation, Doug Baxter and Curtis Dowling, asked Wes Everett repeatedly if he had taken a tour of the equestrian facility or talked with manager Pat West prior to signing an agreement to buy a house. Everett said he had seen the facility from the road and driven up to the barn once but relied on claims in sales brochures and the community’s website that it was a first-class facility with an award-winning equestrian team.
West, former operator of the center, said she designed the facility in 1986 to be a private stable owned by the club for members to board their own horses near home. She gave riding lessons and coordinated activities like trail rides. She coached horse owners as a team to save time during practice, but they competed individually at events. Rather than having a team, West said, Wachesaw had “a talented group of people with good horses.”
Even though the equestrian center’s stalls were full, West said the facility was “crumbling before our eyes.”
Erosion and delayed maintenance led to flooding of the riding ring and the grounds, she said. Fences were deteriorating, and the ring’s dirt surface got so worn West feared that galloping horses might slip and fall.
“Money was hard to come by,” she testified. Minutes from board meetings confirmed that the facility was overcrowded and deteriorating. On Jan. 15, 2007, equestrians complained to the board about conditions at the facility, listing 14 repairs deemed necessities.
“Nothing of consequence happened,” West said.
She began to cut back on lessons in the fall of 2007 because of risk to participants and animals as the surface in the arena continued to wear and mud kept horses in the barn after flooding. “Horses depend on being able to move around,” West said. “Performance horses are stressed by days in a stall. There was no attempt to bring the equestrian center up to minimally functional standards.”
The closing of the facility was “not really a surprise,” West said. “It was such a struggle to keep it open.”
She said she had no knowledge of a long-range plan to close the facility but knew the equestrian center was always “the red-headed stepchild of the club.”
Members started moving their horses to better facilities in 2008, and it closed in early 2009.
The Everetts’ attorney, Henrietta Golding, asked West if prospective home buyers could be expected to see that conditions at the equestrian center were deteriorating.
“Recreational riders,” she said, “would not understand the conditions at a glance.”
Baxter, the club’s lawyer, pointed out that $26,000 was spent for new siding on the stable and “a little bit of sprucing up” in 2006. New dirt was put down in the ring in subsequent years, and a new smaller ring was fenced in. Directors approved $11,400 for an electric pasture fence that was attached to what West called crumbling PVC fence posts.
Baxter asked West if she would have told prospective home buyers about the deteriorating state of the equestrian center. “If someone had called,” she said, “I would have told them I couldn’t provide what they wanted.”
The board president, Art Letzler, said the equestrian center was shut down in 2009 for lack of use.
During questioning, Golding claimed the facility was allowed to deteriorate so members would move their horses, and capital could be diverted to the club’s other facilities: the golf course, tennis courts and Kimbel’s restaurant.
Letzler denied a claim by Everett that he wanted to eliminate the equestrian center so he could play “cheap golf.”
Golding asked Letzler why he failed to appoint a chairman or members of the equestrian committee contrary to the bylaws.
Letzler said he didn’t see any use in appointing a committee since the facility was closed.
Prior to becoming board president, Letzler was head of a long-range planning committee for Wachesaw. The plan said the quality of the equestrian center was not consistent with the club’s image, and it called for identifying costs to bring it up to standard.
“You never did that, did you? Golding asked.
“No, I did not,” Letzler answered.
The club later declined to accept an offer of $20,000 from the Everetts to reopen the equestrian center.
One of the proposed sources of funding for improvements in the club’s long-range plan was from the sale of the equestrian property. The club listed the property with Chicora Real Estate in May 2009 for $1.5 million but eventually leased it to a private operator.
The Everetts filed suit, claiming a breach of fiduciary duty by the club to provide the promised equestrian center.
Wes Everett said he was ostracized after he sued the club and he began adding complaints. Among them were:
• The club violated its bylaws and participated in a conspiracy to commit trespass by allowing the Waccamaw High School tennis team to practice and play there;
• The club didn’t follow its articles of incorporation in changing its rules about home ownership and club membership;
• Club members made libelous statements about him on a members-only website.
Judge Ben Culbertson dismissed 13 of the Everetts’ 17 complaints, leaving four claims that the club failed to inform prospective buyers about the equestrian center’s condition or plans to close it.
Golding called H. Erwin “Ki” Thompson, a Myrtle Beach appraiser, to the stand. He testified he appraised the Everett house three times: for $650,000 in May 2010, $622,000 in January 2012 and $664,000 this month.
Defense lawyers asked Thompson if the equestrian center was the cause of the decline. He said he measured market conditions and sales of similar properties in the area to make an appraisal. The equestrian center was not a consideration, he said.
Baxter said damage to the Everetts came from the fact that the economy has tanked and they were wrong to rely on a sales brochure and website prior to making a $900,000 purchase.
Rather than let the jury decide the case, the parties agreed to the settlement and asked that terms not be read aloud in court.
Neither wanted to discuss the details after court adjourned.
“We’re glad to have this behind us,” Letzler said.
“It’s been a long four years,” said Wes Everett, adding that he wasn’t sure he would remain a resident of Wachesaw.
Culbertson thanked the jurors for their six days of patience during the complicated civil trial. “Do not feel this has been a waste of time,” he said while dismissing them. “This case was settled because you were here. It put the participants in a compromising mood. Both sides probably feel they gave more, but going to a jury is a roll of the dice.”