Greenbelt Fund Application Creates Fuss in Charleston

August 24, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveBy Warwick Jones
Citizen Reporter

It was believed that the recommendations of the Urban Grants Review Committee, the Greenbelt Bank and staff over greenbelt fund grants would be quickly approved by the Charleston County Council at its Aug. 11 meeting. But councilmembers 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 famed Angel Oak. Council member J. Elliott 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 councilman Michael Seekings said in his address to the Finance Committee during the county council meeting, 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.

Councilman Dickie 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 comfortable with the request.

If the property was already protected, why was the valuation so high at $339,000, he asked? In a follow up to a question from Councilman Vic Rawle, he also asked why $161,000 was used for improvements.

Weren’t Greenbelt funds used for improvements to be minimal? County staff reminded council members 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 Schweers and Colleen Condon voted against the disapproval.

The Post and Courier reported that Mayor Joe Riley was angry with the decision. His ire was predictable. We also think that if the county were to allow 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, 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 issue was so divisive, fairness should not have allowed Seekings to have the floor to himself.