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County Council, August 11

Issues with some Greenbelt fund applications
Harborview Road project on hold for 30 days

Warwick Jones

We thought the recommendations of the Urban Grants Review Committee, the Greenbelt Bank and staff over greenbelt fund grants would be quickly approved by Council. We were wrong. Council took issue with some of the recommendations and rejected three applications and deferred another.

The most surprising rejection was that for $518,000 by the City of Charleston, to purchase 6.49 acres around the Angel Oak. Council member Summey moved that the application be rejected immediately when discussion began. He later declared that “it feels like a bailout”.

Charleston City Council some months ago approved the application though as City Council member Seekings said in his address to the Finance Committee yesterday, the vote was close at 7-6. He pointed out that the property in question was part of a Planned Unit Development and was already marked Conservation. He said that the purchase was not a proper use of taxpayer funds as the property was already protected.

Council member Schweers thought that the County should defer to the City. Under the Greenbelt Plan, funds were allocated to municipalities in proportion to their population. The municipalities had to choose their projects and the County should defer to a decision by the City Council, he argued. However, the Council member did not seem real comfortable with the request. If the property were already protected, why was the valuation so high at $339,000, he asked? In a follow up to a question from Council member Rawle, he also asked why $161,000 was used for improvements. Weren’t Greenbelt funds used for improvements to be minimal? Staff reminded Council that although minimal, the amount had never been defined. In the case of Angel Oak, the funds were for the relocation of the gift store and parking area.

Only Council member Schweers and Condon voted against the disapproval.

The Post & Courier reported this morning that Mayor Riley was angry with the decision. His ire was predictable. We also think that if the County were to allow Council member Seekings to address the Finance Committee on the issue, it should have sought another City Council member or the Mayor to present the alternative side. Normally, the there is no time set aside for citizen participation in Finance Committee meetings though we concede it has been a practice to allow mayors and other official representatives of municipalities and agencies to speak during meetings. But as the Angel Oak was so divisive, fairness should not have allowed City Council member Seekings to have the floor to himself.

We would expect Mayor Riley to appear before County Council to argue the issue. But the meetings of the City and County Councils coincide next Tuesday evening. The City meeting begins at 5 pm and the County’s at 7 pm. Normally there would be insufficient time to wind up the City’s business and for the Mayor to get to the County meeting in time to speak. But possibly, the Mayor Pro Tem will take over if a long session looks likely to allow the Mayor to address County Council.

We thought the application by the Isle of Palms Township (IOP) had a lot of merit. It was approved unanimously by the Urban Grants Review Committee and recommended by County Staff. But it seems that some folk on the IOP were unhappy and feared a swelling of parking problems. This caused the Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC) to disapprove the application. (Under the Green belt Plan the PRC must sign off on all Urban Grants)

At issue was an application for $474,305 to be applied to purchase of 1.18 acres in the township at a cost of $1,333,500. This was a very high cost for so little land but the property had beach front and connected the beach to Palm Boulevard.

It seemed nobody has an issue with the cost. And indeed, Council member Schweers was uncertain whether there really was an issue. He had many calls from IOP residents about parking but the issue was never really that relating to this specific property.

In response to a motion by Council member Summey, a decision was deferred for 30 days to give staff to look at the issues raised by residents

The was little dissent amongst Committee members in rejecting the application for $410,000 by the Mount Pleasant Land Conservancy to buy a 3.5 acre property in West Ashley. If the grant were approved, the property would be conveyed to the Charleston Parks Conservancy and would be its head quarters and used “for a community and family garden initiative”.

Council did not like the idea of a 6,000 sq ft structure being built on the small lot and wondered about the freedom of public access. Only Council member Condon voted for the grant.

The application by the Cultural and Life Enrichment Complex has been an issue since it was first considered by the Greenbelt Bank late last year. Originally the group sought $965,000 to buy an 11.6 acre property that abutted PRC’s Caw Caw Interpretive Center. The group planned to raise $2.58 million for buildings, parking etc. on the property.

The Greenbelt Bank was skeptical about the price of the land and the ability of the group to raise funds for construction. At the urging of the Bank, the group renegotiated the cost of the land to $650,000 and more latterly, to $555,000. However, no progress was made in finding financing for the buildings proposed for the property.

Most Finance Committee members were disinclined to accede to the Staff recommendation that the funding be approved, and with the provision that if funding for the buildings were not secured within 3 years, the property would revert to the PRC. Council member Schweers again noted that the Town of Ravenel planned something similar at the Tea Farm Creek property that joined to Caw Caw. Mead Westvaco also planned something similar on its development in East Edisto. Council member Qualey suggested that the acquisition of the property did not meet the criteria laid down in the Greenbelt Plan.

Council members Darby, Johnson and Pryor were the only members supportive of the proposal.

Of the applications that were approved by the Finance Committee, the most impressive was that submitted by the US Forest Service. It sought $1.6 million to apply to the purchase of 1529 acres in the Frances Marion Forest for $4 million.

Council member Schweers waxed enthusiastically over the application, the amount of acreage and the relative cheapness on a per acre basis. Nobody disputed his opinion and it was unanimously approved.

Other items of the agenda:

  1. Comcast plans to introduce a new internet service for qualified low income families to help children have access to the internet. The service will cost $9.99 a month and Comcast will provide free service equipment up to a cost of $100. The download will be only 1.5 mbps, insufficient to download videos or games but sufficient to download text. Families who have children enrolled in the free lunch program qualify for the service but only if they have not subscribed to another Comcast internet service within the last 90 days.
  2. No further work on the Harborview Road project will be performed for the next 30 days while recommendations by some residents are considered. Council member Qualey had asked staff to look at complaints by residents that the project was too big and too intrusive. Staff investigated the complaints and made a presentation yesterday. Some of the citizens’ suggestions were;

  • Eliminate sidewalks altogether
  • Reduced width of shared use paths to 8 feet from 10 feet
  • Reduce travel lanes to 11 feet from 12 feet
  • Reduce grass buffers
  • Reduce size of left turn and center two-way left-turn lanes
  • Staff rejected these suggestions and gave explanations. But it acceded to other requests, to include traffic signals on Fort Sumter Drive and Mikell Drive, and to reduce the posted speed limit from 40mph to 35 mph. The latter is subject to SCDOT approval as the road comes under the department’s jurisdiction.

    The Committee agreed not to put out the project for bidding until its meeting again towards the end of September.

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