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City Council Meeting October 18

City steps in to preserve Angel Oak
Citizens demand action on crime on Peninsula
Marc Knapp

It is rare that I am in full agreement with the Mayor. Last night's City Council meeting was one of those occasions. The City is to initiate steps to acquire the land around the Angel Oak on Johns Island and ensure the preservation of a wonderful landmark. But the process is not simple. The discussion and the public hearing occupied most of the Council meeting,

To put last night's meeting into perspective, let's start at the beginning. Sea Island Humanities is the owner of land that surrounds the Angel Oak. It also operates health care and assisted living facilities, an important service to Johns Island, particularly for the large African American community. Some years ago, the Foundation ran into financial difficulties, largely it seems because of mismanagement. As a result, the organization has hovered near bankruptcy. Its salvation was a deal made with River Birch to develop the surplus land on the 40 acre plot. River Birch is to pay $3.5 million for the land and develop it under a Planned Unit Development.( PUD). This PUD was approved by Council early this year. If all went according to plan, River Birch would commit and proceed with its PUD, make the payment of $3.5 million to Sea Island and the cash would be given to the Bankruptcy Court to pay creditors.

Developer hoped to change PUD conditions
What precipitated last night's meeting was the application by River Birch to change the conditions of the PUD. It felt it could not abide by the original conditions and sought to reduce the area to be set aside around the tree from 8.9 to 6.9 acres, and to reduce the buffer zones around the acreage. It also sought to increase the housing density and shift the siting of commercial space. In normal circumstance, it is our view that the Planning Commission and Council would have rejected this application. After all, what benefit are these changes for the public? They only benefit the developer.

Could Sea Island be forced to shut down services?
Unfortunately the situation is more complex. The Bankruptcy Court gave Sea Island until November 20 to settle the sale. If payment is not received by that date, most likely a receiver will be appointed and the Foundation declared bankrupt. According to many speaking last night, such a situation could be very gloomy. The health care and assisted living facilities, are important to many of the folk on Johns Island, particularly in the African American community. Bankruptcy could mean the closure of these facilities and the failure to pay outstanding wages and salaries.

City prepared to pay $3.5 million cash
But it is possible that many speakers had prepared their speeches before they were aware or fully cognizant of what the City proposed and revealed at last night's meeting. It indicated that it was prepared to pay the Foundation $3.5 million for the land if River Birch decided not to proceed with its original PUD. There were no strings attached. Payment would be certain and enable Sea Island to fulfill its obligation imposed by the Court.

A number of other bids are possible
No problem you might think. But according to the lawyer representing Sea Island, there were a number of developers interested in the property. If River Birch dropped out because it chose not to proceed, then most likely the Court would put the land back on the market. A higher price may be offered for the land and the City lose out unless it were prepared to bid much higher. We can't argue against this but at least, the successful bidder would be required to abide by the conditions of the original PUD and this may be sufficient to restrain bidding. But the proposal by the City presently is only a back-up to River Birch's contract should the developer fail to go to closing.

Council members and lawyers in the audience were hesitant to predict the action of the Bankruptcy Court and there were fears that the health and assisted living facilities would be closed down if the November 21 payment were not made under the terms of the original arrangement between Sea Island and River Birch. For this reason some Council members were not opposed to the re-zoning. But most Council members were prepared to take a chance and moved to adopt a motion that maintains most of the original conditions on the PUD.

City to look to half-cent sales tax for funding
For the record, the City plans to finance the acquisition by the issuance of anticipation bonds to the value of $3.5 million. The repayment should be possible by using monies raised by the recently imposed half-cent sales tax. The City will make an application to the County. Its request should be treated sympathetically as a large part of the half -cent sales tax funds are being set aside for greenbelt and landmark acquisitions. Indeed, considering its importance, we think a higher than $3.5 million price tag could be considered sympathetically. After all, the City only wants to retain the 8.9 acres around the tree. It will put the balance of the acreage back on the market. So the net cost of the acreage will be relatively small.

Crime issues again
There was nothing on the agenda that prompted the comments. But there were a number of citizens who spoke in Citizens Participation time of crime in the City. Specifically, they were talking about the Peninsula and particularly about the East side and the Crosstown highway area. Not only was crime conspicuous, it was becoming more blatant. One speaker referred to prostitutes hawking their services in the early hours of daylight. They were oblivious to patrol cars. Council member Lewis has noted the high crime levels in his and adjoining districts many times and made reference again to the conspicuous nature of prostitution and drug dealing on a number of streets on the Peninsula. He again called for action. One of the speakers also called for more foot patrols, a request more frequently heard recently.

Council member George asked why the City was seconding two police officers to the Santee district when there clearly was a strong need for police on the Peninsula. This issue was raised earlier in the evening and the Mayor stated that these police would help cut the flow of drugs into Charleston. Council member George's question was ignored by Council which voted for the secondment regardless.

James Island re-zonings turned down
We don't know what it means, but we note it anyhow. In the past, any re-zoning on James Island would breeze through Council, opposed more often than not only by Council member George. Well, last night, Council rejected two re-zonings that would have lead to higher density developments. We are not sure why. Was it out of sympathy for Council member George who has temporarily lost his voice because of a 'flu-related wog? Or was it to help set the stage for Kathleen Wilson's bid to unseat Council member George at the upcoming election? Or was it simply the recognition that one can't increase housing densities on James Island indefinitely?
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