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County Council, June 14

Property deals in the works – but no details
Greenbelt Plan amendments approved
Warwick Jones

The County’s record on property transactions is not stellar, and considering the Naval Hospital experience, far from!! So it is not hard for us to side with the three Council members who opposed the property deals proposed at yesterday’s Finance Committee meeting.

The details of the agreements are not known but presumably were discussed in the Executive Session. At the end of the session, motions were made to prepare documents for the sale of two parts of the 995 Morrrison Drive property owned by the County, and a purchase of the 5 acre property at 1357 Remount Road, North Charleston, the old Bi Low shopping center.

Council members Schweers, Qualey and Darby opposed the deals. There may have been slight differences over the reasons for their opposition. In relation to 995 Morrison Drive, the Council members thought there should have been more transparency and an effort to solicit bids from more than one buyer. Council member Darby also thought the County was simply helping a developer to become wealthier. In regards to the Remount Road property, insufficient information had been given and not enough time to consider the proposed deal.

It was also apparent from the very short discussion that the County was selling only part of the 995 Morrison Drive property to the developer, sufficient to enable it to meet the requirements of the DOT to build a bridge to the island it wished to develop. The County plans to move ahead with the sale of the remaining part of the property.

It is not hyperbole to say that the County has suffered ridicule over the handling of the lease/purchase of the old Naval Hospital. What transpired on Council, and in executive sessions relating to this fiasco has never been fully revealed. The most quoted source was a lengthy article by the Post and Courier which laid the blame on Council member Pryor. He allegedly agreed to remove the time limit on renovations that were part of the contract with the developer. It was because of this, the Court ruled that the County was responsible to pay its lease obligations which in turn, prompted to County to buy the property. Council member Pryor described the article as “fake news” and indicated that he planned a rebuttal.

Considering the absence of information, we can only speculate about the agreements proposed yesterday, and their purpose and value. Like the dissident Council members, our opposition reflects the absence of transparency. We wonder at the silence of Council. Why is such secrecy necessary? What is at risk? In our limited understanding, we’d think that the County would go to greater lengths to involve the public in its plans, particularly considering its record. It seems too often that the County hides behind executive sessions!!
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The amendments to the Greenbelt Plan proposed by the Greenbelt Advisory Board (GAB) were approved by the Finance Committee. Much of the discussion last night related to the division of funding between rural and urban projects. GAB members were divided on the split and in a close vote last month agreed to a 50/50 allocation. This compared with a 70% rural/ 30% urban split in the previous greenbelt plan. Similar to the GAB, Finance Committee members were split but in a 5 to 4 vote agreed to the GAB recommendations. Council members Schweers, Qualey, Sass and Johnson voted against the even split.

Council member Moody still was not happy with the allocation to urban and asked that the GAB reconsider its recommendation to not allow funding for improvements in urban projects. This request was included in the above motion.

There was limited discussion about other changes proposed by the GAB such as the scoring system, or the nature of the bodies to review and approve greenbelt funding. Council member Schweers thought that there should be more competition between municipalities for urban funding. Council member Moody said it was “arrogant” that the GAB thought it could do a better job than the municipalities in assessing urban projects.

The author is a member of the GAB and preferred a 70% allocation to rural projects as opposed to the 50% approved last night. As noted by Council member Sass and others, the public at the time of the first half-cent sales tax referendum and in recent public meetings, indicated its strong preference for rural projects. We’d add that the GAB was created to put some distance between the Council and the sales tax funds, to ensure that funds would go to greenbelts. This distance will be reduced if the GAB should succumb to Council’s wish to include park improvements as eligible for urban grants. As others have noted, there is little public funding for greenbelts, particularly rural but lots available for improvements for urban parks.