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Kiawah River Plantation Planned Development TIF District, A Boondoggle in the making

Lee Walton

Given the slim local news pickings lately in the Palter and Chatter, one is often forced to even read the minutia hidden in the bowels of the classified Public Notices and Meeting Notices to find out what’s happening on the Lowcountry political agenda.

Such was the case for a very enlightening find in this past Sunday’s Classified Section. For those who missed it, the Charleston County Planning Commission and County Council are planning a series of public hearings and meetings next month to, among other things, amend the County’s Comprehensive Plan to allow “Planned Developments” to construct privately owned and operated wastewater treatment facilities. Other companion proposals include a zoning change for a 1,428 acres portion of Mullet Hall on Johns Island from Single-family Residential and Agricultural Preservation to Planned Development. Hot on the heels of the proposed zoning change is County Council’s approval of a Development Agreement with developers of the Kiawah River Plantation to allow construction of 1,285 dwelling units, 450 guest rooms, 80,000 square feet of commercial space, a golf course, and a private wastewater treatment system. Last, but certainly not least, is the creation of a tax increment financing (TIF) district to fund construction of all the new roadways and utilities within the Kiawah River Plantation. Guess who’s going to pick up the tab for this not-so-well-hidden in the fine print taxpayer boondoggle?

The County’s creation of a TIF district for the benefit of private development on Johns Island will be a bitter, expensive pill for County taxpayers to swallow for years to come. Given the current state of the nationwide real-estate market, any payback will be decades in coming, if ever.

The original intent of tax increment financing was to create a funding mechanism to allow gritty, blighted, underdeveloped urban core areas to be reconstructed with publicly funded infrastructure that would encourage private development within a designated district, and grow the tax base. This growth in the property tax base generating increased tax revenues from private sector redevelopment would be dedicated to pay-off the debt service on TIF bonds that a municipality or county would sell to fund reconstruction of the infrastructure and other worthwhile public amenities such as streets, parks, streetscapes, and improved utility infrastructure. During the period that the TIF bonds were being paid off, the portion of property tax revenue for public services would remain level at he pre-redevelopment assessment rate, even though additional public funds would be required to provide the increased public services and police and fire protection required to serve the redeveloping TIF district. In short, property taxpayers outside the TIF district would have to pay more for the increased costs of services required within the TIF district until the bond debt was fully repaid. In the long run, normally 8 to 10 years, all taxpayers would benefit from the increased tax base, but in the short run, all other property tax payers would fund the needed additional services with in the TIF district.

Urban TIF districts may be fiscally prudent for a city trying to revitalize decayed and underutilized core areas, but it makes absolutely no sense to create a TIF district for the benefit of a large private resort development within rural, agricultural farmland inhabited mostly by the last remnants of indigenous wildlife on the rapidly disappearing farmlands of Johns Island. It’s bad enough to be witness to what has happened on James Island and all over Hungry Neck, East of the Cooper, when funded solely by private development, but to allow it to happen on Johns Island with a large public subsidy will be a travesty of the highest order.

How can our elected County Council even consider such an insult to the citizens of Charleston County in such harsh economic times? Have they no conscience, shame, or caring for those they were elected to serve?

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