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County Council, April 5

Approves land purchase by Town of James Island
Action bucks Greenbelt Plan
Warwick Jones*

One way or another, greenbelts took up much of the discussion at the Finance Committee meeting on Thursday. Council approved funding for 5 projects, drawing on funds remaining in the Greenbelt allocation from the first half-cent sales tax.

There were no issues over these items except some Council members were unhappy about the absence of public access on one property. But there was another project, the purchase by the Town of James Island of a County Council-owned site at the corner of Folly and Camp Roads. The site cost the County about $600,000 but the sale price would probably be less because the DOT has acquired part for a Right of Way. Despite the objections of Council member Schweers, Council approved the purchase, funds to be drawn ultimately from the greenbelt allocation to James Island out of the most recent half-cent sales tax. The Council member said the purchase did not meet the County’s Greenbelt criteria. We think he was right. And we would add that the approval sidestepped the Urban Grants approval process.

But first the 5 approvals. Two were for small purchases by the City of North Charleston and one by the Town of Lincolnville. The City and Town had residual amounts from their allocations and planned parks or trails for the purchased lots. County Parks and Recreation (PRC) received an allocation of $300,000 to acquire land adjacent to a boat landing at Sol Legare. The land was previously leased to the PRC and the purchase was necessary to maintain the viability of the landing. The final project was more demanding financially with a cost of $812.000. It was for a conservation easement on 48 acres on River Road, not far from Maybank Highway. There would be no public access but the easement would help preserve the view-site and ambiance of the entrance to Johns Island. Council member Pryor was unhappy there was no public access but other Council members thought the price for the easement was a bargain. All Council members approved the purchase except Council member Pryor. Council members Darby and Summey were absent.

The issue of the lot on the corner of Folly and Camp Road has been before Council a number of times. The Town of James Island wanted to lease the land for a token amount and develop the site as a park/ park and ride/ CARTA stop. Council baulked at this and suggested the Town buy the site. But the Town said it had no funds. What about Greenbelt funding, Council asked, and told staff to investigate.

Staff suggested two approaches but also noted that under the present greenbelt guidelines, funds could not be provided to include the purchase of a building, or for a park and ride site. Council discussed the issue of the building and it is possible that discussion is moot in that the building may have no value. And Council, with the exception of Council member Schweers ignored the second issue.

Staff suggested that the decision be deferred until the Greenbelt Advisory Board (GAB) complete its deliberations over policy relating to allocations from the second half-cent sales tax, or, the Town be given a grant to purchase the lot, to be repaid out of any future greenbelt allocation from the second half-cent sales tax. The Council chose the second option, and in our opinion, wrongly

We do not have an issue with the aspirations of the Town of James Island. But we have an issue with what County proposes.

Those of us who have been around for some time recall the public’s wariness about the first half-cent sales tax. Some notable figures called it a potential “boondoggle” and a political tool. The outcome of the referendum that gave life to the sales tax in no small measure was due to the proposal to create the Transportation Advisory Board and the Greenbelt Advisory Board (GAB). They were designed to create plans and policy for spending on transportation and greenbelts – putting some distance between the politicians and the funds. We think both bodies fulfilled their roles very well.

The GAB has been meeting over recent months to update the County Greenbelt Plan. There may be changes such as the percentage allocation of funding to rural and urban grants. Public access may also be given a more important role as well as sidewalks and trails. The GAB may also recommend changes to the bodies that approve allocations – the Greenbelt Bank and the Urban Grants Committee.

The members of the GAB are appointed by Council members, by the Council Chair, and the Cities of Charleston, North Charleston and the Town of Mount Pleasant. In my opinion, the GAB members are competent, hard-working and serious about creating the best Greenbelt Plan possible for the County. There may not be unanimous views on all issues but the background mixture of GAB members ensure that opinions of those representing both urban and rural areas are heard.

So to the point. The County has usurped the role of the GAB. Its decision to fund the Town of James Island purchase goes against the Greenbelt Plan. The Plan seeks to purchase land and easements over land for preservation and to include only minor improvements in any purchase. The purchase of land for a park and ride does not fall into the “greenbelt” definition. Not only has the County usurped the role of the GAB, but of the Urban Grants Committee (UGC) as well. This Committee, consisting of GAB members and representatives of the PRC approves applications for grants to the urban areas of which the Town of James Island is one. The purchase of the Folly Road lot effectively bypasses the UGC.

Members of the GAB must now wonder about their relevance in the light of the County’s actions. Is the County possible assuming that the GAB in its deliberations will recommend major changes to the Greenbelt Plan? We won’t speculate as to what those changes will be for we don’t really know. But it is a slap in the face of GAB members for the Council to presume that the outcome of the deliberations will favor what it proposes. And it is even worse if Council does not care what the GAB has proposed, or will propose.

The issue will go before Council on Tuesday night for a final vote.

* The author is a member of the GAB