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County Council, October 15

Issues over the Greenbelt Plan
Accommodation tax allocations and objections to that for Hollywood
Warwick Jones

The discussion on the County’s greenbelt program last night left a number of Council members confused. Chairman Pryor opined that when citizens voted for the half cent sales tax and the concomitant greenbelt program, they thought that they would have access to the greenbelt land. The greenbelt program has financed a large number of conservation easements which may preserve the land use but ownership remains unaltered and in most cases there is no provision for public access. Further, Council member Rawl found something wrong with conservation-oriented land trusts seeking funds from the Greenbelt Bank to purchase conservation easements from land owners, and that these trusts would be reimbursed by the owner for costs and other items. He also questioned the certainty that the trusts could continue to manage the conservation easements that the County had financed through the Greenbelt Bank.

In consequence of these and other comments, staff will make a presentation to Council on the greenbelt program and presumably, Council subsequently will discuss any proposed amendments. They probably will also discuss proposed amendments of the Greenbelt Advisory Board (GAB) which is scheduled to meet early next month to review the County Greenbelt program and issues that may have arisen over grants that have been made or recommended by the Greenbelt Bank and County Council.

Greenbelt Plan strongly defended by some members
The views of Chairman Pryor and Council member Rawl did not sit well with some members of Council, and particularly badly with Council member Schweers who was a member of the GAB before joining Council. He totally rejected the view of Chairman Pryor that the public was misled or deceived. The referendum language may not have referred to “conservation easements” but the public was fully aware of them. How else to ensure that farm and rural land was retained? And indeed, the Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan was shaped by the GAB that met twice a month for over a year in meetings to which the public were invited. Public hearings were also held across the County seeking citizens’ views, many of which were incorporated in the plan. As well, public hearings were held when the draft of the plan was available. There was no outcry against easements, but generally applause for the plan. And again, there was a public hearing before Council approved the plan.

Council member Schweers might have added that the GAB members were appointed by Council members and that the Cities of Charleston and North Charleston, and the Town of Mount Pleasant also appointed members. There was no opposition, only support for the concept of conservation easements in GAB meetings. Indeed the only major disagreement on the GAB was whether the distribution of available funds should be either 60% or 70% for rural projects. The cities wanted only 60% with the balance available for urban projects. The GAB ultimately voted 70% for rural projects.

Council members Condon, McKeown and Thurmond supported Council member Schweers, and Council member Condon’s strong defense of the Greenbelt Program had an air of disbelief that Council members at this stage could express such doubts over the program and its formulation.

Council member Rawl was right to question one proposal
We do think however that Council member Rawl was right to question the grant that was proposed by the Greenbelt Bank for the Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding school. The school was granted $700,000 of greenbelt funds to buy part of the land that it was using for its riding school. It was prepared to put a conservation easement over the land as well as the property it already owned. The Council member pointed out that it was not eligible for greenbelt funds and recommended that either the County acquire the land with a Greenbelt Bank grant and lease it to the school, or that the school agree that the land revert to the County should the school abandon the proposed use. The school was to choose the more suitable option. Council approved the Council member’s suggestion with Council member Schweers voting against.

A hard decision
The decision on a grant to the school was a hard one, a fact pointed out by a member of the Greenbelt Bank when the Bank board first discussed the grant. Nobody disputed the good that the school did and the worthiness of its cause but did the school really qualify for greenbelt funding? The Bank ultimately decided it did, or chose to sidestep the issue of its qualification – was the Group “organized and operated for natural resource conservation, land conservation, or historic preservation purposes”, as stipulated by the appropriate County ordinance?

(Authors note; Mea culpa. I erred in not recalling that the Ordinance was amended in 2007 and gave the Council authority to make a grant at its discretion. The amended ordinance is shown below. My original opinion that the grant was contrary to the ordinance was wrong. The amendment gives the Council the right to do what it did.)

Council member Rawl pointed out last night that the approval of the grant would unleash a host of applications from other 501C (3) non-profits for greenbelt funds. He said that already he had received enquiries.

Herewith the definition of an Eligible Greenbelt Funds recipient as defined in Ordinance 1424 amended

Eligible Greenbelt Fund recipient means:Charleston County or a municipality in Charleston County; any agency, commission, or instrumentality of the County or municipality within Charleston County; a not-for-profit charitable corporation or trust authorized to do business in this State and organized and operated for natural resource conservation, land conservation, or historic preservation purposes, and having tax-exempt status as a public charity under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, and having the power to acquire, hold, and maintain interests in land for these purposes; an agency or instrumentality of the United States Government; and any other entities as may be approved at the discretion of County Council on a case-by-case basis.

Accommodation tax distributions way down
At a meeting last year, Council discussed the distribution of the Accommodation Tax proceeds for fiscal 2010. As the amount collected was projected to be well down, because of the recession, it voted to only distribute $175,000 to agencies, a fraction of previous distributions. Council also agreed that of the $175,000, $25,000 would be allocated to projects in the unincorporated areas The Council also tasked the Charleston Area Convention and Visitor Bureau (CVB) and the College of Charleston to make recommendations on the allocation. The methodology was to be determined by these entities and reflect the contribution that the applicants made to the tourist industry.

Council had no issue with all but one of the recommended allocations and indeed complimented the CVB and the College on their work. The allocations were well down on previous years and the top allocation went to the Aquarium with $16,112 followed by Patriot’s Point Development Authority $15,951, Piccolo Spoleto $12,567 and Spoleto $9,667. Altogether, there were 19 recipients with the Adande African Drum and Dance Company getting the smallest allocation at $4,028.

Allocation to Town of Hollywood too much?
However there was an issue over the $25,000 allocated to the Town of Hollywood for a "farmers market". The town’s application was the only one from the unincorporated area and therefore, the town was allocated the lot. This was too much for some Council members who saw reason to reduce the allocation and to carry the balance to the next year. The contrasted the allocation with that to the Aquarium and Spoleto that attracted many tourists. How many tourists would go tho the Farmers Market? But others said that cutting the allocation was unfair and wanted to allocate the full amount to Hollywood. Discussion over the issue was deferred.

Disclosure: The author is a member of the Greenbelt Advisory Board.

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