The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance
County Council, July 24
Council approves all of the PRC’s proposed acquisitions
But not the conditions requested by the Long Savannah developerWarwick Jones
The agenda was long. In the words of the County Administrator, it was the most “intense” in his experience. And looking at the audience, it was obvious something important was at issue. Mayor Riley was there with an entourage from the City and which included Council member Evans. State Representative Stavrinakis was also there as were many members of the public. Together, they more than filled the Committee room.
Long Savannah still has hurdles
The major issue was the purchases of the Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC). The PRC sought approval for the purchase of three properties that were to be used as parks and which would absorb $18 million of the $36 million sales-tax fund entitlement. The Council approved all but made great effort to clarify that the purchase of the property at Long Savannah was approved without the conditions that the developer sought. It was very clear that some members of Council were very opposed to these conditions and would vote against the acquisition if they were included. It is also clear that the City of Charleston and the developer of Long Savannah have more hurdles to clear before any development can be considered. And it remains very possible that the terms sought by the developer will be unacceptable.
The PRC sought approval for
• $1.5 million to part finance the purchase of 17 acres at Cummings Point which abuts the Morris Island Lighthouse.
• $6.5 million to buy 1568 acres of potential parkland at Long Savannah in West Ashley
• $10 million to buy 420 acres of potential parkland at Harmony Hall also in West Ashley.
Ready approval for Morris Island
Council members had no issue with the Cummings Point purchase. It was approved even before the executive director of the PRC completed his presentation. But there were issues over the other two.
Concentration of parks in West Ashley
Council members, particularly Council member Mc Keown who represents the East Cooper region, were concerned at the concentration of spending in the West Ashley region. The two parks were not that far from other parks in the PRC system. At the same time, there was a crying need for parks in North Charleston and East of the Cooper. With only $18 million left after these purchases, was there sufficient money to do justice to the other areas?
Purchases were a unique opportunity
PRC spokesmen responded that they had asked themselves the same question and there had been considerable debate. But considering the quality of the properties on offer and the strong likelihood that nothing comparable at a reasonable price would pass before it again, the PRC decided to buy both. The appeal of Harmony Hall was its 1.7 miles of waterfront. There was probably no other property left in the County with such a characteristic. Council was also told that the problem with North Charleston and East of the Cooper was availability. North Charleston had been largely built-out and there was little left though some waterfront sites were “exciting”. But as for East Cooper, there were interesting sites but the prices were prohibitively high, though they declined towards McLellanville. The PRC was working closely with the administration of both the City of North Charleston and the Town of Mount Pleasant to acquire suitable sites.
Sale of part of Harmony Hall tract possible
Questioned by Council member Condon, PRC Chairman Kevin Hollingshead suggested there was a possibility that the PRC would sell part of the 420 acres at Harmony Hall but this would require special legislation on the part of the State. If there were a sale, it would not be back to the private sector but to a State entity or a municipality such as Megget. In answer to another question, he also confirmed that the seller had acquired a larger parcel for $9.6 million earlier this year and was selling to the PRC 2 of the 3 parcels acquired for $10 million. He said that it was not fair to compare the two prices as improvements had been made to the properties and there were considerable holding costs incurred by the buyer.
In the final vote, the purchase of the Harmony Hall tract was approved with 5 council members voting for it, 2 abstaining and 2 against. Council members Schweers and McKeown voted against with the former starting that he needed more information before making a commitment for such a large amount of money. Council members Condon and Thurmond abstained from voting.
Discussion on Long Savannah purchase lengthy
As soon as the Long Savannah purchase came up for discussion, Council member Condon with almost indecent haste moved that the purchase be approved. She clearly hoped that Council would move with the swiftness displayed with the Cummings Point project. If so, she was disappointed. The discussion relating to the Long Savannah property took up a lot of time. It also included a speech from Mayor Riley and was interrupted for a period by an executive session.
A “world class” park and “new urbanism”
The early discussion and the Mayor’s speech dealt with the merits of the property, its scenic values, its extensive wetland and the possibility of a 50 acre fresh water lake. Council member Inabinett publicly dreamed of blissful bathers and fishing. The Mayor dreamed of a “new urbanism” development with its town center and radiating construction with declining densities away from the center, and the “world class” nature of such a park. It went on and we began to wonder whether the real issues would ever come up. They did eventually.
These issues were the request by the developer that
• The Urban Growth Boundary is moved to include the development on the urban side.
• Approval for a development adjacent to the proposed that would allow 3600 dwelling units instead of the 1200 possible under present zoning.
• The annexation of the properties into the City of Charleston
To be fair, the Mayor did mention the need to move the UGB. He thought the creation of the park would strengthen the new position of the UGB. In discussion afterward, he also acknowledged the 3600 units to be built but suggested that such a large number would not be built and besides, the development would not be typical “suburban”, but a “new urbanism” with its greater densities and concomitant commercial and retail facilities and a reduced need for automobiles. He also noted that the developer was prepared to contribute $15 million for infrastructure financing.
Council Member Bostic leads criticism…..
Council member Bostic was the most pointed in his criticism. His constituents had told him that the “County had done a sorry job in protecting us”. Referring to traffic congestion, the Bees Ferry Road had the lowest rating of any road in the State. Considering its present condition, how could he contemplate the addition of 3600 more dwelling units? Council member Schweers also questioned the implication of moving the UGB and Council member McKeown noted the concentration of parks in West Ashley. He also supported Council member Bostic in his opposition, adding that annexing the Long Savannah properties into the City of Charleston will not remove the traffic problem. Logically, Chairman Scott stated that Council needed a traffic study.
…and Council member Condon most enthusiastic
Council member Condon was the most enthusiastic of the supporters for the Long Savannah acquisition. We can’t say for certain but it seems she would have supported it with all the conditions attached. “We should focus on the park and not the UGB” she said. And that is what Council did under the guidance of the Chairman.
,Council votes for park but without the conditions
Council was asked to approve the purchase of the park land without any consideration of the conditions. As clarified for some members a number of times, a vote for the park did mean a vote for the conditions requested by the developer. Council members were to vote simply on the merits of the tract as park. And on that basis, Council approved the purchase.
The outcome may not have been pleasing for the developer, the PRC or the Mayor, but it was probably inevitable. It would have been irresponsible for the Council to have approved the purchase with the conditions requested. And indeed, if attached, the purchase probably would have been rejected.
Long Savannah is not dead
But Long Savannah is not dead. We understand that the project will come before the Planning Commission next month. But whatever the decision of the Planning Commission, we expect any change to the UGB will be deferred until after the updating of the County Comprehensive Plan which should shortly get underway. There should also be public hearings on amendments to the Plan and in particular, to the UGB. It is only after the conclusion of these things, perhaps a year or so away that a decision will be made by Council on the movement of the UGB. But the issue of traffic on Bees Ferry road and surrounds will linger longer. And indeed congestion may worsen.
Mayor Riley and the developer of Long Savannah can clearly look to some support on Council. But at this point, they can’t be certain of sufficient support to sign off on the conditions. County Council members can expect more telephone calls over the next year or so.
Greenbelt Projects approved
The PRC request was the first item discussed at the Finance Committee meeting. The remaining 25 items were dealt with in the about 20 minutes with the Committee attempting to conclude before the scheduled public hearings at 6.55pm. The applications for funding of a number of rural greenbelt projects were approved without discussion, as were most other items.