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Edmund man claims state agency is trying to take his family land

Edmund, SC (Paul Kirby) – For Edmund resident Gareth “Gary”Shumpert, his family and its history are very important to him. Shumpert is a name that’s been around Lexington County for more than a century and he’s very proud of that fact. His family has called the sandy soil of southern Lexington County home for more than 135 years. To Gary Shumpert, family and land are almost the same thing; both are something that stays together from birth through death.

Shumpert inherited his property off Boiling Springs Road near Edmund from his family. At just over 48 acres, it’s mostly trees, sand, and brush. There’s also a small stream and a pond surrounded by a swamp. At some point, he’s cut off a portion or two for his son. When he dies, the land will pass on to the next generation.

The little pond Shumpert believes is partly his isn’t much to look at first glance. There are a few fish, some odd-looking trees, and snakes when it's warm. Occasionally, water fowl use the pond as a rest stop or even to roost. It’s called Shealy Pond, named after another well-known Lexington County clan. Some say Shealy Pond is just a swamp; those people would be wrong.

Shealy Pond’s is actually the Shealy Pond Heritage Preserve. It was given that designation years ago by a SC Nature Conservancy. Part of it was bought by them from a nearby church. Another little piece came from Shumpert’s mother. It was eventually transferred to South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources or SCDNR. As it turns out, Shealy Pond is a wonder of nature with unique trees and plants; some might be the last of their species in the world! There are trees like the Atlantic White Cypress, and water plants like the Golden Club and Watershield. There are Appalachian Blazing Stars, Netted Chain Ferns, and Large Gallberrys. Some of these are considered significantly rare while some like the Cypress are making a comeback.

Shealy Pond is not the only DNR protected land in Lexington County. The most well-known is probably the Peachtree Rock Heritage Preserve off SC Highway 6. It has special features like the sandstone rock with the strange shape. There are hiking trails for people to enjoy nature. Heritage preserves are protected from sale, development, or destruction. This is meant to ensure our children, grandchildren, and every generation to come will be able to see and enjoy these places.

Gary Shumpert’s story gets interesting because of that little pond. For years, he was told, and has records he believes prove, he owns some of the pond and half the creek that feeds it. He says for years his family told him his property went out to a post in the pond and then down the middle of Scooter Creek. Like Shumpert, the SCDNR believes they have records that prove they own the whole pond, Scooter Creek, and land on Shumpert’s side also. They both claim to have records dating back years as proof. Shumpert believes that not only has the SCDNR encroached on his land, they've gotten over onto his neighbor's land too.

Shumpert says that the SC Nature Conservancy first contacted him about his land in 1989. They sent him a letter saying that the land had a rare blueberry which is not known to be found anywhere else in the world. That letter states, “We would very much like to add some of the acreage you own along the pond to the existing preserve.” That letter spells out that they would pay him $1,255 per acre for 11 acres of his land. They pointed out on a map the land they wanted to buy. Shumpert turned them down and said he wasn’t interested in selling. It wasn’t that he planned to destroy the rare vegetation, make a blueberry pie with the last of their kind on earth, or cut the trees, he just wanted his part of the world left alone. In fact, when referring to the land at Shealy Pond, Shumpert said, “Their side’s a real mess. People leave trash everywhere, there’s a garbage can filled to the top, fishing line hanging from the trees, and worm boxes all over. I don’t want my side to end up the same way. I just want mine to be woods like it’s always been.”

To prove his ownership, Shumpert refers to plats prepared by land surveyors. He’s got records from 1941, ‘56, ‘72, ‘84, ‘94 and now 2018. All were stamped and recorded at the courthouse. He’s even had a well-respected attorney who’s also a land surveyor look at his plats and records. That expert agrees Shumpert owns up to the pond’s water and right up the middle of Scooter Creek.

In 2018, the SCDNR’s attorney wrote Shumpert and told him he was wrong about the property line. The DNR's expert believes they own about 3 acres over on Shumpert’s side of Shealy Pond, Shumpert says. They eventually sent him a legal document called a Boundary Agreement. They asked Shumpert to sign that and relinquish his claim to the land. That document refers to a deed the DNR received from The Nature Conservancy in 1984 as proof it’s theirs. In the agreement, the heart of the agreement says, “FURTHERMORE, Mr. Shumpert does voluntarily and forever remise, release, and relinquish unto the SCDNR all rights, claims, title and interest, if any, in and to Parcel A as described above.” What was described above said their experts’ opinions were right and Gary Shumpert’s were wrong. They also ask that he, “Abandon, declare void, and disavow the claim possession, ownership, title, or right to the SCDNR;” basically, they wanted him to give up and let them have the land. To date, he’s flatly refused to do that. He says he feels like the DNR’s attorney even sent a veiled threat to him in one e-mail after he didn’t respond to his e-mails for a while. He couldn't respond because he almost died during that period and was lying in intensive care. He feels like their attorney has hinted they’d take him to court and even try and seize the land.

Shumpert says this is just a matter of principle, a David and Goliath story. He’s still not interested in selling the land that he says is rightfully his. He has no plans for it, it’s too swampy for anything. He just wants to pass it on when he dies. Shumpert also says that he’s never done business the way the DNR has. They started sending a letter and later sent e-mails. No one came by to see him, look him in the eye, shake his hand, or share a glass of tea at first. “It’s easier to do business the old way,” Shumpert said. “Too many people are talking on paper and never even know what each other look like.” He did say after he had refused to sign their document they finally sent someone he knew that was an employee at DNR to “sweet-talk” him. “I'm not stupid! It was clear to me they found a local that I knew who worked there to send out here. He told them he knew me, and already knew what I’d say. He told them I’d say no before he ever came. He did stop by and we talked. Just like he expected, I told him I wasn’t signing, giving, or selling them anything. We’re still friends but I told him no too.”

Shumpert has tried talking with local politicians, but most have been reluctant to get involved in what may eventually end in court. “Mac Toole (SC House 88) has been the most helpful,” Shumpert said. “At least he’s trying to see things from my side.”

Robert McCullough, longtime spokesman for the SCDNR, said recently in a telephone interview, “We aren’t looking for a fight with Mr. Shumpert. The DNR would hope to end this amicably with everyone leaving the table as friends and happy. We certainly aren’t trying to take something that’s not ours or cheat anyone out of anything. In cases of a land disputes, there are lots of details and opinions that come into play. When records go way back, it’s up to experts to look and decide the facts. In our expert’s opinion the land we refer to as DNR’s is correct. We’re trying to protect this unique place for all the citizens of South Carolina,” he said. McCullough did say in hindsight the DNR might have handled the whole deal differently from the start. He referred to his granddad and said he did business much the same way Mr. Shumpert would have liked more; face-to-face starting with a firm handshake. “We’ll keep working to try and improve our relationship with Mr. Shumpert and hopefully we’ll come to an agreement that’s best for everyone,” he concluded.

As for Shumpert, he says he’s ready to fight if he must. “I know the state’s got a lot of lawyers and money they can use, but right’s right and fair is fair. What they’re trying to do to me just isn’t right,” Shumpert said.

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