When it comes to the future renovation of MorningStar Ministries’ Heritage Tower building, the ball is in the proverbial court of South Carolina’s York County Council.
Representatives of MorningStar Ministries spoke to the council on Monday night, imploring the governing body to remove barriers to MorningStar renovating the building into apartments for senior adults.
“We are here tonight to try to stop what is going to be escalating to much more expensive, very ugly litigation,” said Rick Joyner, founder and executive director of MorningStar Ministries. “We don’t want to go there, but we have no choice.”
Joyner and Dave Yarnes, MorningStar’s executive vice president, asked the council to dismiss a county lawsuit against MorningStar which effectively blocks further construction of Heritage Tower.
The 21-story Heritage Tower has been under construction since the late 1980s. It was originally intended to be an apartment building on the property of Heritage USA, a Christian theme park founded by televangelist Jim Bakker. When MorningStar’s Rick and Julie Joyner purchased the tower and adjacent buildings in 2004, the plan was to continue the tower’s construction.
Nearly 18 years after the Joyners’ purchase, the ministry is still unable to move forward with the tower’s construction. The building sits empty, with nobody having actually lived in what was intended to be an apartment building.
“Nobody seems to be able to explain to us why you are trying to keep us from developing our own property,” Joyner said to the council.
The unfinished building was valued at $15 million when MorningStar initially had it appraised. Joyner said a more recent appraisal values the building at more than $20 million, even in its current state.
Though the building’s brick façade is crumbling, Joyner said the building has been inspected recently, and it is structurally sound. Joyner added an engineer said it was actually “years ahead of its time in engineering.”
For more than a decade, the ministry has been working unsuccessfully with York County officials to gain all the proper permits for renovations. This has led to multiple lawsuits back and forth.
In August 2020, MorningStar and York County representatives agreed to dismiss their lawsuits against each other. This included a lawsuit against MorningStar which Yarnes said cost the county—and taxpayers—more than $330,000 “and benefitted no one.” Yarnes said MorningStar “in good faith” dismissed its subsequent lawsuits against the county.
“Since the mutual dismissal, we believed you guys were acting in good faith and made significant expenditures after that,” Yarnes said.
These expenditures included multiple inspections, a $75 million tax-exempt bond inducement from South Carolina’s Jobs-Economic Development Authority, and the addition of sales staff to manage the retirement community. Yarnes also said there is already a waiting list for units.
Yarnes said MorningStar was “blindsided” on Aug. 30, 2021, when York County Attorney Michael Kendree moved to reinstate the county’s lawsuit. This was the final day of a one-year period of time when MorningStar could have appealed. Yarnes said MorningStar did not receive any prior communication about this.
“Even if you don’t have respect for us as a ministry, we have not been afforded the same respect as other developers,” Yarnes said.
“We found many ways that we are being treated differently from other developers,” Joyner later added. “Is it religious discrimination? We think we have some evidence to that effect. We want to be best friends with our local government. We don’t want to be in a war like this, but that’s where we’re headed.”
Dozens of MorningStar supporters, including residents of Heritage Courts, the existing senior housing on another part of MorningStar’s property, shared their perspectives during a time set aside for public comment.
One Heritage Courts resident, Jeff Carroll, alleged the council was participating in both religious discrimination and age discrimination by not allowing a new housing development for Christian seniors to be built.
Another speaker, Zona Garrett, pointed out that more affordable housing is needed in this area—especially for low-income senior adults. She said the average apartment rent in York County is approximately $1,300 a month, yet some seniors eligible for Social Security benefits only receive $1,500 a month.
“This tower is a small drop of water in the amount of affordable housing that is needed,” Garrett said.
Members of the York County Council did not choose to offer a response or take questions before or after the MorningStar representatives spoke.
“On the advice of legal, the county council does not comment on ongoing litigation matters,” said Christi Cox, chairperson of the York County Council.
Immediately following the comments from Yarnes and Joyner, the council went into executive session to discuss legal matters. Though regular county council meetings are open to the public, state law allows the council to discuss pending litigation in private.
MorningStar was not on the list of agenda items for the council’s executive session. It is not clear whether the night’s comments prompted further discussion during the executive session.