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County Council, June 14

Liability over Mark Clark extension daunts some members
Final decision likely on Tuesday. Some issues on a greenbelt project
Warwick Jones

We’re getting close to the wire. The issue of extending the Mark Clark Expressway fianlly should be decided at the Council meeting on Tuesday. To be fair, the extension of the expressway is not the issue, it is the liability that accompanies it. It would seem that if the County does not assume this liability, which is open ended, the extension becomes moot. The voting at yesterday’s Finance Committee meeting gave no indication as to what the final decision might be with the 8 members present evenly split. Council member McKeown was absent but full attendance of members at the next Council meeting should ensure a decision.

The Committee considered two agreements yesterday. The first was between the Council, the SC Department of Transportation (DOT) and the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB). The agreement describes how DOT will construct the extension and how the parties will interact. The second was between the County and DOT and related to how they will construct improvements to state roads.

To recapitulate, late last year the State Infrastructure Bank agreed to advance $420 million to the project. As part of this agreement, the County agreed to spend $117 million on state roads in the County. The funds for this spending would be derived from the half-cent sales tax.

Discussion mainly in executive session
Unfortunately, the Finance Committee voted to go into executive session to discuss the issue so we are unable to report on what members had to say yesterday. But from subsequent comments, the issue stemmed from the liability that accompanied the project and not the actual project itself. Simply the issue is this. The County has $420 million to fund the project. If it costs more, the County will have to find the funds. And given the all-too-frequent habit of major construction projects overrunning original cost estimates, the ultimate cost of the extension could be hundreds of millions more than $420 million. For a Council that was contorting itself to find savings of a mere $200,000 to avoid a property tax increase, the prospect of say a $100 million overrun has to be more than frightening!

County can scale back project if costs spiral
Chairman Scott noted that the SIB and the DOT proposed an agreement that was more favorable in its terms to the County than those normally signed with counties or municipalities in similar arrangements. He also said that it was perhaps unfortunate that the County had to assume the liability but there was no other way if the project were to proceed. But the County was not without options. If it were obvious there would be a cost overrun, the County could scale back on the size of the project such as reducing road width. And there was also the option of appealing to the SIB and the State for more funds. Chairman Scott didn’t say it, but any relief from these sources would almost certainly be conditional on further funding by the County, so the pain would be lessened but not removed.

Issue of Council credibility
As we have noted before, the community seems to be evenly divided about the wisdom of extending the expressway. Proponents argue that it is necessary to alleviate the traffic congestion in West Ashley and nearby areas. The opponents fear the impact on the rural areas on Johns Island and beyond. Our view is if Council makes no changes to its zoning regulations, is sparse in approval of variances and exceptions, and does not move the Urban Growth Boundary, the impact on Johns Island should be contained. But the question will also be raised, how can Council not move ahead with the project? In its wisdom, Council approached the SIB for funding to extend the expressway. How credible will it be if it now decides not to sign the agreement relating to the spending of the funds?

Greenbelt program applauded, but some questions on one grant
Grants for acquisitions of urban greenbelt areas came up last night and all were approved with Council member Bostic applauding the process and the overall greenbelt program We have reported on the applications earlier and there is little more to add except the discussion in relation to one of the projects.

Benefit to Hunt Club property owners rather than the public
Council member Thurmond questioned the spending of $270,000 to acquire 120 acres adjacent to the Hunt Club development in West Ashley. He said this was more beneficial to the owners of property in the subdivision rather than the public. Creating the greenspace was something a developer should do in the normal course of business. He noted that over 108 acres were wetlands and could not be developed anyhow. Why finance their purchase? The property was also next to the County dump.

No need for another park
Council member Condon suggested that the purchase was not necessary in that the PRC was negotiating to buy over 1200 acres at the Long Savannah project which was very close by. Implied was that this part of West Ashley was going to be well endowed with parkland and the funds should be used elsewhere.

But benefits still favored funding
We thought the Council members concerns were legitimate but the responses in our view were soundly in favor of the funding. Yes, much of the wetlands could not be developed but they still have value, probably considerably more than the $270,00 funding sought. Yes, the Hunt Club residents would have handy access but a public parking area was to be created on the site and another 5 acres was being donated by the developer. There would also be other public access points. But more of interest was the commitment by the developer to spend funds on installing walkways and a system of trails even through the marsh area. Councilmember Bostic thought the price was a bargain and as staff noted, the predominance of wetlands did not detract from the beauty of the potential park. Indeed, it could enhance it.

Concern Council member Condon’s comment
But we were concerned about Council members Condon’s comment. She talked in a way that the PRC’s acquisition at Long Savannah was a fait accompli. We only have press reports to rely on and it is possible she knows more than we do. But as far was we can ascertain, the PRC has offered to buy the 1200 acres for $4 million, half of the $8 million consideration that the developer of Long Savannah seeks. The agreement is contingent on the moving of the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) so the Long Savannah development will be on the urban side and the City of Charleston can annex it. The proposed change in the UGB should be sufficient to suggest that the purchase cannot be considered a fait accompli. The movement of the UGB is a serious business and needs Council approval. It also warrants a public hearing.

Council member Condon also asked about the allocation of funds to all parts of the urban designated areas of County but which were not in municipalities. She asked that the distribution be done so all participated. Staff pointed out that applications were on a voluntary basis, essentially first come first served. Staff might also have said that the funds were very limited - $2.66 million – and any attempt to evenly spread them would result is small and perhaps impractical amounts for projects.

Savings on LPA contract
There was no discussion so we are not sure what led to the proposed amendment to the LPA management agreement. LPA is the consultant retained by the County to assist in creating the Comprehensive Transportation Plan and spending on road project related to the half-cent sales tax. But Council and LPA agreed to amend the contract, an amendment which saves the County about $400,000 over 3 years.

We suspect that the issues were discussed by Council in Executive session but we do know that Council members Pryor and Darby have been critical of the contract and in their view, the large amounts charged for staff. They voiced criticism many times and their role in obtaining the amendment was acknowledged at yesterday’s Committee meeting.

We have not sought an opinion from LPA but suspect it was not happy about the renegotiation. But with fees running about $4 million a year, a reduction was probably a sign of good faith and a desire to work amicably with the County.