As the stock cars lined up for the 1991 DieHard 500 in Talladega, the CBS announcer proclaimed, "It seems wherever Ernie Irvan goes these days, controversy follows." The reference was to "Swervin' Irvan's" aggressive driving style, oft criticized by other drivers early in his career.
Nearly two decades later, the sideswiping between Irvan and his next-door neighbor on Wadmalaw Island has found him in an altercation that's provoked public controversy way beyond a bit of rookie high-speed rubbin'.
"We moved here to get away — for the peace and the privacy," says Kim Irvan, seated in the cozy alcove of the family's spacious horse barn at Selkirk Plantation. The Lowcountry Open Land Trust monitors the 800-acre Selkirk site under a conservation easement, broken into 29 private lots. The Irvans moved here with their two school-aged children in 2007, and their 40-acre property lies immediately within the community's gates.
Selkirk maintains a strict "Covenant Conditions and Restrictions" policy, adopted in 1997. Everything from the color and style of the fences around the Irvan's horse pastures to the plants used in landscaping were subject to the approval of the Property Owners Association (POA).
After going to great lengths to meet the neighborhood's specifications, including building a separate garage to keep their RV out-of-sight and constructing lattice work around their horse dung receptacles, the Irvans grew upset about what they deemed a double-standard in the POA's enforcement of the rules. Their long, narrow property borders the Ambrose Family Farm, including the primary access road that farming vehicles and customers use to visit the farm.
The Irvans became increasingly bothered by the car traffic running about 30 feet from their horse barn last spring, and they encouraged the POA to send a "cease and desist" letter to the farm last July, requesting that they end their "u-pick" and on-site Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations. When that letter had little effect, the Irvans filed suit, requesting a judge's interpretation of the covenant's restrictions on commercial activity.
And that's when the caution flag went up.
Pete and Babs Ambrose are old-school farmers. They began growing tomatoes at Selkirk Plantation in the early '80s, progressing to strawberries, pumpkins, and now, a host of vegetables that they offer through their 737-member CSA. When Selkirk went up for sale, they purchased the land they'd been farming for years. That subjected them to the same covenant as any future landowners – a document that restricts retail and commercial operations, but allows "the right to conduct any activity relating to agricultural uses" and "the production and sale of plant and animal products."
Although the Ambroses have never lived at Selkirk (their home is in Rockville, also on Wadmalaw), they're among the first landowners at the plantation. A patch of trees blocks their view of the neighborhood's entrance road a few hundred yards away, and until the Irvans moved in next door, the idyllic farm was without visible neighbors.
The Irvans and Ambroses were initially fast friends, sharing meals and holidays together just two years ago — they even joked about the Irvans' daughter working at the farm alongside the Ambroses' grandchildren. It wasn't until last spring that their relationship began to sour, when Pete notified the neighborhood that his dove hunting club would soon reconvene on the Ambrose property. The Irvans worried about gunfire near their land. They were also concerned about the increased traffic generated by the farm's u-pick strawberry field in the spring. Visitors occasionally ventured through the Irvans' fence to pet their horses, raising fears about potential liability issues in case someone was injured. Kim even set up a video camera aimed at the access road, documenting as many as 60 cars venturing by their house in an hour. By early summer, the Irvans approached the POA about their suspicions that the Ambroses were violating the covenant.
"We don't mind farming," says Ernie Irvan. "Our biggest complaint is, when we bought this piece of land, we had to sign this piece of paper that said we understood the covenants. We just feel like everybody in Selkirk should have to do the same thing."
The Irvans have approached Pete Ambrose about moving the farm's access road away from their property. Ambrose claims that the "back way" in gets too wet to allow consistent passage, but Babs claims that they offered to provide dirt, equipment, and labor to relocate the existing road away from the Irvan's pastures, provided the Irvans or the POA pay the balance of the cost.
The POA then sought legal counsel to interpret what the covenant allowed. Their lawyer determined that the Ambrose u-pick and on-site CSA pick-ups (only 42 of the 737 CSA members pick up their share at the farm) violate the covenant. The community then voted to send the cease and desist letter to the Ambroses.
"All, as a community, that we're interested in looking at is making sure that everybody is treated equally," says Steve Kuemmerle, president of the POA, noting Ambrose bought the property based on the covenants. "It has always been a violation, but it's just come to a head at this point in time. In the last couple of years, it's really changed. It's gotten to where we can get a couple thousand cars during a u-pick period on weekends, and it's just too much for the community."
Faced with increasing opposition from their neighbors, the Ambroses notified their supporters in the larger Charleston community, including the Coastal Conservation League and Lowcountry Local First. They soon had a letter of support in hand from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. State Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers also visited the farm and expressed his support.
After seeing that reaction to the POA's letter by the Ambroses, the Irvans filed their lawsuit this December, requesting that a judge decipher the covenant and that the Ambroses pay their legal fees if they were found to be in violation.
"The problem is, the only way you can get a judge to look at it is to have a suit," says Ernie Irvan. "We don't really want to sue them; we just want to find out an interpretation."
Irvan adds, "We're not suing for money, but for peaceful enjoyment of our property. It's not to put them out of business, and it's not NASCAR versus farming."
When the POA broached the hunting and u-pick issues to Pete Ambrose last May, the farmer commented that "the only thing I forgot today was my rope, because you all are behaving like a mob, and you're out to lynch me."
But in the wake of the Post and Courier's coverage of the lawsuit, a zealous and impassioned group of farming and local food supporters in Charleston bared their teeth back at the Irvans. Comments from the newspaper's website and to Ernie's fanpage implored the family to move back to North Carolina or California (the driver's home state). "Pack your bags — We'll take you and your whole family to the state line and drop you off," said one anonymous phone caller.
The family also recieved a handmade card, the front reading, "Smile - God loves you." Kim opened it to read inside, "Cause the rest of us think you're an ass."
After the lawsuit went public on Dec. 1, Babs Ambrose sent an email to her CSA members and supporters, stating, "We need all the help we can get — it's expensive. Maybe the Irvan's think we'll just quit because we cannot afford it. Well, until that day comes, we're going to the mat with this one. All or nothing and we have committed to ALL."
One Ambrose Family Farm CSA member, Sarah Soderlund, responded by establishing the Facebook group "Save Ambrose Farm." (Full disclosure: Stratton Lawrence joined that group during research for this story). Within 24 hours, the group had over 1,000 members, topping 3,500 within a week. Soderlund, a stay-at-home mom, spent hours each day weeding inappropriate remarks or foul language from the comments which stretched for pages.
The Irvans had their own online woes. When Kim Irvan learned that her high school-aged daughter was online defending their family, she'd had enough. After days of harassing phone calls and mail, even death threats, she called Ernie at his Race2Safety (a head-injury-prevention charity he founded) event in Charlotte, where he was giving out helmets to underprivileged children at Boys & Girls clubs.
"I was worried when the kids would come home a little bit late," says Kim. "It got so personal and vindictive. I read the articles in The Post and Courier and thought, 'No wonder everybody hates us, the way they paint it.' I just couldn't believe this was happening in a civilized country."
On Friday, Dec. 11, the Irvans contacted their lawyer and called off the suit. Across Charleston's locavore blog-o-sphere, a triumphant cheer of victory resounded.
"It wasn't worth my family's safety and the persecution," says Kim. "I'm tired of being portrayed as a monster."
"I'm sure it was unbearable," says Babs Ambrose. "I can't imagine taking that kind of heat from the community, and these are people that are used to being loved and honored anywhere they go. It's the principle that we stand for that everybody is so outraged about, that somebody who is not from here comes here and tries to do this. I think people like the Irvans just don't realize that you don't get between a Southerner and his tomatoes."
Soon after dropping the suit, the Irvans put their still-under-construction retirement home up for sale, with plans to move away. But they worry about how to sell a home within a community whose covenant is still up for interpretation.
"If we try and sell, I can just imagine what the value of the property is going to be if there's a commercial business next door, than if there's just a farmer next door without retail sales," says Ernie. "It's going to definitely make our property less valuable, and we're not even suing for that."
"Your home is your biggest investment," adds Kim. "We're not rich that we can go buy another and live there while this blows over. We've got to get back what we put in this to leave. And legally, I don't want someone to buy it and come sue us later because of this not being cleared up. I think it's a big issue for everybody in here."
The Ambroses have accused their neighbors of wanting to make Selkirk an elite equestrian community, a charge the Irvans deny.
Ernie wonders if they ought to have sued the POA in the first place for not enforcing the covenant, avoiding the bad press of having sued a popular family farm. Ultimately, he wishes the Ambroses would have moved the road before it came to this.
"We can't give them permission to disobey the covenants, but if he would have just moved the traffic, we wouldn't have minded."
Faced with the ire of 3,500 Facebook users united against them, the Irvans are, at least figuratively speaking, packing their bags. Whether they stay or go, Selkirk Plantation still faces a tough call now that the challenge to the Ambrose Family Farm has been raised. POA President Kuemerrle says he'd hoped for an impartial judge's ruling to clarify the meaning of their neighborhood covenant.
Even if a judge ruled against the Ambroses, South Carolina's Right to Farm Statute might overrule a neighborhood's restrictions. The law protects the livelihood of farmers who preexist a new neighbor that, "doesn't like the sound of the cows mooing in the evening," explains Beth Crocker, a general counsel to the S.C. Department of Agriculture. But fighting for protection, or against a neighbor's lawsuit, can be enough to put a farmer out of business.
"All we have is our land," says Babs Ambrose. "We don't have dollars. In order to pay a bill, we have to sell. There would be no other way to afford something like this."
Fortunately for the Ambrose Family Farm, the growing local-loving legions in the Lowcountry have their back. "Save Ambrose Farm" Facebook activist Soderland says she might even galvanize her troops behind even bigger causes.
"There was so much support and energy and readiness to do something to help this family and to keep Johns and Wadmalaw Islands rural and agricultural, that I thought it was kind of a shame — it's wonderful for the Ambrose family — but that it ended so quickly," says Soderland. "I was thinking about messaging the members, and seeing if they want to put a lot of that energy behind similar issues in the area, like the planned expressway across Johns Island."
That shouldn't be a problem. Just tell them that it's running directly across a tomato field.