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County Council, October 9

Spring Grove Development gets the nod
Simmering differences between County and Chicora Life Center developer
Warwick Jones

The Spring Grove Development is at last coming to the final stages of approval. The proposed development has been before the County now for more than 5 years and last night the Planning/Public Works Committee gave approval for a cluster of ordinances relating to the development, the most important of which was the Development Agreement. The Committee was told by staff there were still some issues but they would be sorted out before the Agreement went for its final reading before Council.

The Spring Grove Development has been well publicized and subject to many public meetings. Suffice to say is that it will be a major project encompassing 14,508 acres in the East Edisto area, just west of Ravenel and Hollywood. Only 8,849 acres are developable as the balance is wetlands. The project was initiated by Mead Westvaco. But the owner is now West Rock, a company formed with the merger of Mead Westvaco and RockTenn.

To accommodate and facilitate the development, the County adopted Form Base Code Zoning for the development. About 75 % of the developable area will be reserved open space with development of no more than 1 dwelling per 25 acres. The balance, essentially along Highway 17, will be more intensely developed, and as well as dwellings, will include industrial, commercial and retail projects.

The life of the project is 50 years. Municap, in an appendix to the Development Agreement, made some estimates as to the size of the project at the completed buildout. It projected 6,000 dwelling units, 540,000 sq.ft. of retail, 475,000 sq.ft. of office space and 2.9 million sq. ft. of industrial. Using the unit values in the appendix, we estimate the value of the dwelling units will amount to about $1.56 billion and the nonresidential at $413 million, making a total of $1.97 billion. These estimates are in 2013 dollars.

Only Council members Darby and Schweers had reservations about the project last night. Council member Darby has often expressed fears of the impact on the present residents of the area and looked to the project owners for some sort of mitigation. He and Council member Johnson were also uneasy about the 50 year term and thought something less would be better. Council member Schweers wanted to be sure that the County was not on the hook for large and unrecoverable spending on infrastructure.

All members of the Committee voted for the ordinances except Council member Darby, who abstained.

The Chicora Life Center (CLC) project was before the Finance Committee and a presentation was given by the General Manager, Mr. Doug Durbano. Mr. Durbano probably hoped that he would be able to make the Committee more agreeable to meeting the requests of the CLC. We’d say that Mr. Durbano’s hopes may be forlorn.

For the record, the County contracted with CLC to lease significant space in the Old Naval hospital that was acquired by CLC from the City of North Charleston. The leased area was to be renovated at CLC‘s expense and house a number of the County’s health and social service agencies. It was to be available at the beginning of this year. The move in date is now December 1. Mr. Durbano said that the project had cost CLC some $18 million to date.

Not only is the renovation well behind the original schedule but costs are also exceeding budget. CLC says that the County should make an extra contribution but from the questions and answers last night, the County was not in a receptive mood.

CLC asked for

  • An estopel certificate presumably so to present to its bank to obtain further necessary finance.

  • A complete list of the items needed to be addressed before the County occupied the leased space. It seems that the requirements of the County were only verbal with a written list “to be determined”.

  • To make payment to CLC beyond that in the agreement. This is our wording. The contribution to the above items was to be capped at $1.6 million for CLC. This figure has now been exceeded. CLC was somewhat vague as to what it sought. It said that $93,000 was due but it could be another $500,000.

Mr. Durbano also noted that the HVAC units in the building were working when they were tested at the time of the acquisition from North Charleston. But some 12 month later, and after signing the lease agreement, they failed and needed to be replaced. This was an expense not anticipated. The lease rate negotiated with the County did not take into account replacing these units.

Mr. Durbano was questioned by Council member Rawl, a retired judge, and Council member Condon, an attorney. Suffice to say that Mr. Durban did not acquit himself well. It transpired that as well as being General Manager of the project, he was principal of the construction group that was renovating the building. The construction group had no bonding despite the State regulations that require such. He conceded that it was possible that things could have been done differently and better. And from the questions asked by Council member Rawl, it seems that the liability for a failed HVAC system was not the County’s (nor were most of the other liabilities.)

Mr. Durbano has also put $1 million of his own into the renovation work though it seems this was not a cash contribution but through waiving management and other fees.

The Bennett Hofford Construction company has now taken over the renovation of the building and Mr. Hofford assured Council that renovation would be completed by December 1.

The issue will go back to legal, but thereafter we don’t know. It is possible that some members of Council will prefer to walk away from the agreement if they could. More likely the County will come to some arrangement with CLC because of the urgency of housing the agencies. But whatever the arrangement, CLC will feel most of the pain, in our view.

In a very close vote, the Finance Committee approved some major amendments to its Bill Board ordinance. The ordinance was complex and beyond our ability to simplify within a reasonable space. The ordinance introduces regulations for digital signs, and also creates a *** Billboard Plaza Overlay District. The overlay extends along Route 26 covering the unincorporated area around North Charleston and beyond. Presently, the County has no regulation governing digital signs. Some municipalities don’t allow them.

The Planning Commission had reviewed the amendments and in a unanimous vote, gave a thumbs down. Some Council members wanted to send the ordinance amendments back to the Planning Commission for further consideration but the Finance Committee adopted them.

*** We erred. The Committee did not agree to the Billboard Plaza, it only approved that part of the amendments that related to digital signs (WMJ)

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