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County Council, August 14

No referendum on I-526 completion
Issues over Greenbelt purchase of Fairlawn Plantation
Warwick Jones

Predictably, there was a lot of discussion and heat over Council member Rawl’s request to hold a referendum on the completion of I-526. The item was the last on the Finance Committee’s agenda and drew possibly a hundred or so citizens to the meeting. However, there was no opportunity for any to speak. And we doubt that this would have made a difference. Just about everything that can be said about the project has been said. Council was generally reluctant to again take up the issue. It was voted down, 6 to 2 with one abstention.

The wording in the proposed referendum changed before and during the discussion. When the vote was called, the proposed wording was simply “Should the Mark Clark Expressway extension/I-526 be completed?” Councilmember Rawl’s original proposal included “with the understanding that the preferred alternative (alternative G) should not be considered and that any municipal consent (pursuant to S.C.Code Ann 56-5-820) should not be applicable”. He explained that he thought these words complicated the issue. He was seeking only an expression of the public interest in the project. It would be a non-binding decision.

The only support Council member Rawl had on the Committee was that of Council member Summey. He said that he was not sure where the majority view lay. He noted that leading contenders on each side of the issue, The Coastal Conservation League and the City of Charleston, had expressed displeasure at the prospect of a referendum. Maybe each thought a referendum would favor the other side? Council member Summey has supported the completion of I- 526 but last night said that his action would be dictated by the result of the referendum.

Council member Condon possibly would have supported the referendum if the wording were more definitive. She made a suggestion to define future action which was accepted by Council member Rawl but then rejected by the Council member later in the discussion because, in his opinion, it would be confusing. Council member Condon abstained in the final vote.

Council member Schweers was critical of the proposed referendum and the wording. Voters had no idea as to what would be the final cost and the possible future tax burden. Council member Sass thought the completion would be devastating for the City of Charleston with the increased traffic flow along Calhoun Street and through the medical complex. Council member Darby said that he still opposed the extension out of deference to those that lived in Johns Island and who opposed the project. But he added that he may need to change his mind in future. Development was coming to Johns Island and it was likely that this would necessitate either the completion of I -526 or the construction of the Sea Island Greenway.

Chairman Pryor remained restrained through the discussion but at the end, strongly expressed his opposition to a referendum. The issue has been bouncing around long enough and he did not want to put taxpayers on the hook for further funding.

Issues over Fairlawn Plantation Greenbelt Project
The Fairlawn Plantation Greenbelt project was on the Committee agenda but withdrawn at the request of the owners, we believe. But it still drew some discussion. The project involves some 6,000 acres in the northern part of the County. The County Greenbelt Bank approved a grant of $11.5 million to purchase 4,800 acres and place a conservation easement over 1193 acres.

Prima facie, the purchase looks good value compared to those funded from the half-cent sales tax in the past. However there are some wrinkles and these led to the withdrawal last night. In the agreement with the County, the sellers have retained life time rights to hunting on the property. These rights will be extinguished at the death of all the existing family members. According to Council member Schweers, the youngest member of the family originally gave up his right. From a valuation point of view this raised the value of the property because the encumbrance would cease sooner. But it seems the youngest member has changed his mind which means another evaluation is necessary. Also, there is legal matters still needing resolution between the owners and the Town of Awendaw.

There was also some heat in the comment from Chairman Pryor directed at the Post and Courier. The paper has supported the purchase of the Fairlawn Property in two editorials. In its last, it took issue with a letter from Chairman Pryor and Council member Darby which noted the restriction of public access to the area. The public would have full access, the editorial said. The chairman said that this was not true. We note the following from the information package prepared by County staff.

“All the land is encumbered with lifetime hunting rights. These rights will prohibit public access until they are extinguished”

We’d like to add something else. What is missing from the public discussion and the P&C editorials is the 500 acres at the south of the Plantation that has to be rezoned as part of the agreement. The present zoning allows one dwelling unit per 25 acres. The owners are seeking rezoning to allow 1 unit per 3 acres. This makes the property much more valuable for development. So as well as the $11.5 million consideration, the owners are looking to the benefit accruing from the rezoning of the 500 acres they will retain.

The rezoning of the 500 acres came before the Planning Commission last Monday but the application was withdrawn at the meeting by the applicant. The Planning Commission may well approve the zoning and the overall agreement may still be viewed very valuable for the County. But it should be noted that the final consideration is more, perhaps much more than the $11.5 million that is being asked of the County.

Other items from last night included:

  1. A redefinition of Council Accommodation Tax Policy. It seems the staff requested this because of Council’s action this year, which had little conformity to past policy. As part of present policy, all requests for appropriations from the Local Accommodations Tax will only be considered twice a year: as part of the annual budget process and as part of the mid-year budget review.
    The requests will be evaluated by the Charleston Metro Visitors and Convention Bureau and the College of Charleston, as appropriate. Applications that are received after the due date for the annual budget process and before December 31 will be held for consideration at the mid-year budget review.

  2. A deferral of a decision to make a greenbelt grant for a Veterans Park on Johns Island. The applicant sought $194,000 to buy 9.7 acres of forested land. It was to be used as a park and for gardens tended by veterans. The grant request was denied unanimously by the Greenbelt Bank board. The 9.7 acres was too much for what was proposed and the applicant had insufficient funds to develop the land. The Bank supported the aim of the applicant but open land would be more suitable for its purpose.

  3. The first meeting of the Consolidation Committee. The formation of the committee follows on the referendum last November which asked citizens whether Consolidation should be studied in the County. Council member Rawl heads the committee of 5 Council members. A Citizens Committee is also to be formed. Committee Chair Rawl said that the first task of the Committee will be to gather information and data relating to the County and the contained municipalities.

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