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Bill Rauch

Taxpayers got snookered on Lafayette Street

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Lafayette St.

Photo above: The Lafayette Street Cottages as they appeared last week: no curbs, no sidewalks, no street lamps.

By Bill Rauch

The PALS baseball season is in full swing and the Beaufort Police Department is doing their job patrolling the parking at Pigeon Point’s Basil Green Complex.

That’s news because this year there is no parking there. In 2012, the city of Beaufort sold — no, excuse me, GAVE AWAY — the city-owned Lafayette Street parking area back in the days when the mayor’s message of the season was that the city needs “workforce housing.”

It did and still does.

It has taken five years to see the buildings go up there, and over that period there have been many excuses offered for what finally became a political fiasco. But now this baseball season with buildings on the old parking site there’s no place to park. Adding insult to injury, the buildings are not, as was promised, either “workforce” or “affordable.”

There is still one townhouse there available … for $279,500, according to the Beaufort County Association of Realtors’ Multiple Listing Service. A couple of the ones that are now under contract were sold for $300,000-plus, real estate professionals say.

The median sales price for a Northern Beaufort County home in April 2017 was $217,500, according to the Beaufort County Association of Realtors’ website.

So what do we know about what went wrong with the city’s workforce housing project that turned out to be a luxury housing project?

First, for reasons that have never been adequately explained, the city put the project out to bid and then when the bids came in they didn’t take the high bid. In doing so they left at least $50,000 of the taxpayers’ money on the table, according to people who are familiar with the project’s bids.

That’s just the beginning.

The property that was the subject of the bidding was four adjacent Lafayette Street lots, or nearly an acre, facing on a park. If the city had wished simply to liquidate the ball field’s parking area, they could have auctioned it off and gotten up to $200,000, real estate professionals say, especially considering that those bidders would have been assured by the city, as were the bidders who answered the 2012 Request for Proposals (RFP), that the four lots could be subdivided into six.  

The city took the haircut (in that they received nothing for the land, the transaction might better be described as a “head-shaving”) because its leadership thought — or at least they said they thought — they were subsidizing a workforce housing project, meaning broadly that the townhomes to be built there would be affordable for nurses, or firefighters or teachers. 

The 2012 RFP is replete, for example, with affordable housing guidelines, definitions and other related financial information.

The city clearly provided the $200,000 subsidy so that the end product would be affordable. 

But bona fide workforce or affordable housing price points would be 35-45 percent of what the Lafayette Street units are selling for.

A 2014 city press release that was bragging on the results before the final sales prices were known tells it all: “City leaders, through the Beaufort Redevelopment Commission, in 2012 sought proposals from developers to create affordable and appropriate housing on the then city-owned vacant land.” 

As the project bogged down and became increasingly embarrassing, later portrayals sought to spin the project as one that was initiated by the city’s Redevelopment Commission, but the 2012 RFP is careful to state that “Final approval (of the bids) rests with the members of the City Council of the City of Beaufort at their sole discretion.”

Apparently there were no timelines or purchase price ceilings placed on the deeds or into the final contract of sale. Or if there were, there’s been no word to date of any lawsuit to be brought by the city to recover damages based on those breaches.

The 2012 RFP also called for streetscape improvements — e.g., streetlights, curbs and sidewalks — but there’s no sign of them either.

With all the expertise that is available to City Hall, real estate professionals ask, how could the city have gotten such a simple transaction so wrong?

The taxpayers may care, or maybe they’re used to it.

But the Basil Green fans really wish they still had a place to park when they go to watch the youngsters play ball.

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

Woods Bridge crash reminds us there’s no traffic plan

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Oyster Bluff construction photo

Photo above: Walmart’s coming. So are more F-35’s and D.R.Horton homes — as pictured here last week at Oyster Bluff. But where’s the traffic plan?

By Bill Rauch

Last week a pick-up crashed on the Woods Bridge and knocked the bridge out for a day. As Port Royal Town Manager Van Willis likes to say: “When the Woods Bridge is down it’s chaos over here.”

“Over here” is the Port Royal approach to the McTeer Bridge, the only way on and off the islands when the Woods Bridge is down.

Never mind that the Beaufort mayor’s blog said the city council was “smelling the roses” last week. Good for them. The rest of us were bumper to bumper in the chaos and smelling one another’s exhaust.

Sure, the 1971 classic swing bridge is going to go down once in awhile, and there’s going to be some chaos. That’s not the problem.

The problem is new rooftops are going up fast on Lady’s Island, and there’s no action plan that addresses how the additional 2.4 cars per house will get across the Beaufort River. No plan. Not even a glimmer of a plan. The plan, if you can call it a plan,  is that there will be increasing chaos.

Let’s be clear. This issue is not new. There have been plans. Several.

Forty-six years ago in 1971, for example, the South Carolina Highway Department promulgated the BEAUTS (Beaufort Area Transportation Study) Plan that called for a by-pass — or “ring road,” as they call such things in Europe — all the way around  Beaufort, including a bridge at Brickyard.

But the powers that be at the time found the Brickyard portion of the plan infeasible. Bridges are costly, right?

Then, a generation later back in the late 1990s the Beaufort County Council member who then represented Lady’s Island, Mark Generales, got motivated. Standing up for his constituents, he said the afternoon traffic off the Woods Bridge in the afternoons was “intolerable.” 

The McTeer Bridge, Generales proclaimed, must be four-laned.

Never mind that the South Carolina Department of Traffic’s engineers, the county’s in-house traffic experts, and the Beaufort City Council all expressed their preference for the bridge at Brickyard instead, Councilman Generales had his way and the parallel bridge at McTeer was built only to find that the experts had been correct and that with the extra lanes available on the McTeer Bridge corridor there was no appreciable effect upon the situation at the Woods Bridge.

About that time Generales exited the scene and the city of Beaufort called for $5 million to be put on Beaufort County’s 2007 penny sales tax referendum for studying, engineering and buying right-of-way for a “third Beaufort River crossing,” wherever the experts that the county hired said it should be.

That penny tax measure passed and the county’s traffic consultants got with SCDOT and took another look at the situation. 

What they concluded was, surprise, that the solution to the Carteret Street/Woods Bridge/Sea Island Parkway congestion is to build a bridge at Brickyard and an improved corridor that would connect Sams Point Road to U.S. 21 just west of the Air Station.

Why? Because many of the occupants of the cars who cross the Woods Bridge are residents who live in Northern Beaufort County’s largest bedroom community, Lady’s Island, and who work at Northern Beaufort County’s largest employer, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

These people twice daily, and the million visitors a year to Hunting Island, and others would take the Brickyard Bridge.

Moreover, with more jets on the way the area’s largest employer is getting larger all the time. 

And with more houses being built on Lady’s Island there will be more homes there to accommodate the newcomers.

All they have to do is get there.

By the way, since the current Beaufort City Council has placed its top priority on business development, “traffic counts” are good for business, but traffic is not — which translated means one of government’s key responsibilities to the private sector is to keep the cars moving.

The 2009 study cost $500,000 and Beaufort’s mayor and council — in fact some of the same members who were smelling the roses last week — stood by in silence in 2010 while the other $4.5 million of the penny sales tax money that had been allocated to the third Beaufort River crossing was spent on road improvement projects in Bluffton.

So where does that leave us now? 

When there was resolve to build a bridge, for political reasons it was built in the wrong place. 

And now — irrespective of the pressures that are greater now than then — it appears there is insufficient resolve to put a bridge where for the past 46 years the traffic experts have been saying it should go.

Accordingly, with respect to traffic in Beaufort, it appears today there is nothing ahead except more.  

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

Business watchdog faults Beaufort on crime

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By Bill Rauch

It is always a pleasure to hear from readers, especially when they get what you’re writing about and add to it a new dimension.

That happened last week.

After reading my recent column about the proposed Jasper County wind farm and its possible effects upon upcoming economic development efforts in Beaufort County a reader sent me the Palmetto Promise Institute’s April 2017 South Carolina Enterprise-friendly Cities Report, a first-of-its-kind analysis that ranks the state’s 50 most populous municipalities from the point of view of their attractiveness as a place to start or relocate a business.

The report is an eye-opener.

It finds Bluffton to be the state’s most enterprise-friendly city. Hilton Head is No. 7, right between Greenville and Spartanburg, and Port Royal comes in a respectable 14th behind Lexington.  

Where’s Beaufort? Way back in the pack at No. 33.

Yes, Southern Living named Beaufort “The South’s Best Small Town for 2017.” Their reasoning was full of squish like “enchantment” and “intoxicating” and “can’t turn a corner without swooning.” 

Moreover, the great contemporary Southern writer, Cassandra King, who wrote the Southern Living piece reminds her readers that love, home and family — all abundant in Beaufort — are what matter most.

The Palmetto Promise Institute is not convinced. These guys are all business. They looked at the numbers. And one in particular is not at all enchanting. 

Of South Carolina’s 50 most populous cities, according to the report, Beaufort ranks third in “per-capita violent crime.” 

If 100 is a perfect score, Beaufort got a dismal 9.51 in this category and that way-worse-than-failing grade dragged Beaufort’s “Community Allure” and overall scores way down.

In all the areas Beaufort was graded as a business-friendly town, “per-capita violent crime” was by far its worst.

Regular readers of this column will recognize this issue. Beaufort now has the same number of sworn police officers it had in 2007, but they are being asked to respond to three times the dispatch call volume they were a decade ago. 

That means the officers on duty have no time to engage in what policing experts call “community policing,” which is when police officers get out of their cruisers and proactively talk to people and get to know who’s who and what’s up. In fact, the Beaufort PD now isn’t even getting to some of their dispatch calls, police brass who are familiar with the particulars say. They are instead calling on Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputies to cover for them, especially on Lady’s Island.

Beaufort was the drug-dealing capital of Beaufort County in the mid-1990’s when Mayor David Taub and City Manager Gary Cannon insisted that enough officers be hired so that a community policing program could be instituted under Chief Bill Neill. Over the next few years the drug-dealers — and the violent crime that follows them — were run out of Beaufort. But in the past half dozen years, however, both have returned.

Southern Living may not know that yet, but the bean counters at The Palmetto Promise Institute do.

If, as the City Council says, making the city attractive to new businesses is high on its priorities list, then it’s time to stop spending the city’s tax dollars on real estate and new programs, and time instead to start hiring police officers.

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

Jasper’s new solar farms will cost us bundles 

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solar farm

By Bill Rauch

Where did all these liberals come from? I don’t recall their saying anything about their liberal proclivities when they were running.

Last week’s announcement that a Virginia-based solar energy company called Dominion will spend up to $100 million to build two solar generating facilities in Jasper County this year is sure to spark a renewed fight on the Beaufort County Council over whether to join the SouthernCarolina Regional Development Alliance.

Why? Because the SouthernCarolina Alliance is credited with putting the Dominion/Jasper solar deal together. And the economic development consortium has long unsuccessfully lobbied Beaufort County to join their group. 

Their defenders will use the good news of the new clean industry in Jasper to ratchet up the pressure on Beaufort County to join.

The solar farms will create about 200 one-time construction jobs, according to Dominion’s press release.

The SouthernCarolina Regional Development Alliance currently works with five counties — Jasper, Hampton, Allendale, Barnwell and Bamberg. As the fee to join the group is based on each county’s respective population, if Beaufort County joined it would immediately be providing more revenues ($175,000 per year plus a $20,000 origination fee) to the group’s coffers than all the other counties combined.

Detractors ask: “Would Beaufort County receive in exchange more than half Alliance’s efforts?” 

Whether to join the SouthernCarolina Alliance has been a quiet but deeply divisive issue on Beaufort County Council for the past several years. Most of County Council’s Southern Beaufort County representatives favor joining the group while all the representatives representing districts north of the Broad River have expressed misgivings. 

It has been only Hilton Head Island-based Council Vice Chairman Jerry Stewart, who has said he’s opposed to joining, and Bluffton’s Tabor Vaux who has been on both sides of the issue who have withheld the key votes that have to date stopped the county short of joining.

But with the Alliance’s board member State Sen. Tom Davis, Alliance Associates member TCL President Richard Gough, and Alliance Advisory board member Ed Saxon lobbying the county this budget season, that may change. 

The glamorous news of the solar farms next door will inevitably be trotted out. 

Or the tipping point may ironically be provided by the county’s newest economic development entity, the Beaufort County Economic Development Corp., which was set up to do the work they would instead ask the Alliance to do. They would not, of course, put themselves out of business. They say they will instead wait until their new executive director is hired, and then ask County Council for more funding so that they can bring in Alliance.

Here’s the hotbed of liberalism. Why? Because traditional conservatives say take the economic development money and roll back business license fees, or property taxes, or a combination of the two. 

Take a hard look at unnecessary regulations too. Getting out of the private sector’s way is what will create jobs.

The liberal solution is the opposite: increase taxes to pile programs on top of programs intended to find ways to create jobs.

Let’s do the numbers.

The Beaufort County Economic Development Corp. will ask the four Beaufort County municipalities for $10,000 each from their FY ’18 budgets, and they want a $140,000 state Commerce Department grant protected with which to help pay their new director. The county will be asked to pitch in more to support their operations, but we don’t know exactly how much yet. Then they will ask the Beaufort County Council to spend the nearly $200,000 to join up with Alliance in FY’18.

Lest we forget, the local governments already help fund the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce. Moreover, the city of Beaufort owns and operates the failed Beaufort Commerce Park that has been a famous million dollar sinkhole.

That’s not all. 

Recently the city of Beaufort spent another million-plus dollars to purchase a downtown building into which to put its new Digital Corridor incubator that will be managed, for an additional handsome fee, by Charleston’s Digital Corridor. That effort’s defenders say it’s too soon to judge, but to date results there have been sketchy at best.

There is undoubtedly more.

With budget season approaching it is reasonable to ask how many tax dollars the local governments ought reasonably be spending to bring in business? Do the past results justify the future expenditures? Would the dollars being spent be more productively spent on essential services like law enforcement, fire, EMS, refuse removal or mosquito control? Or, horrors, tax relief?

These are questions to ask our recently-converted liberal friends.

While listening respectfully to their answers watch carefully their hands.  

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

Time to get out front on the pathways

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This map shows all the sidewalks presently on Lady’s Island. Most but not all of these are separated from the cars on the street by just a 10-inch curb. Photo courtesy of Beaufort County Planning Dept.
This map shows all the sidewalks presently on Lady’s Island. Most but not all of these are separated from the cars on the street by just a 10-inch curb. Photo courtesy of Beaufort County Planning Dept.

By Bill Rauch

These will be struggles, but they are struggles worth undertaking.

The residents of Lady’s Island want a path or paths, something along the lines of Beaufort’s Spanish Moss Trail. They have now said that loudly and plainly.

Yet no master plan for Lady’s Island has called for such an improvement. There is no obvious corridor, like for example an abandoned railway corridor. And there’s no money in anyone’s current or proposed budget for such a thing.

This is an effort that begins right at the beginning … right at zero. Thus it is not for the faint of heart.

Yet the potential benefits are enormous: increased property values, better public health, improved quality of life, increased tourism and a stronger and more cohesive community to name a few.

Having heard the call, Beaufort County’s planners have quietly begun working on a plan for pathways on Lady’s Island. Soon we will see a draft plan, parts of which will undoubtedly have merit. Meanwhile, the city of Beaufort, which under the Northern Area Plan will have the responsibility of enforcing the plan, either hasn’t yet heard the call, or has declined to acknowledge it.

That’s probably because the Beaufort City Council knows it will cost whoever steps up with both time and money.

But it is past time for the city to step up for Lady’s Island. That doesn’t mean the city should go it alone financially. It shouldn’t. But it is time for the city to begin providing some leadership.

Here’s a scenario for the upcoming budget season.

Let’s break out the revenues provided to the city’s treasury from Lady’s Island: property taxes, business license taxes, prepared food taxes.  

Add the three figures up and subtract from that sum the city’s reimbursement to the Lady’s Island/St. Helena Fire District. What’s left is roughly what the city is putting into its pocket from Lady’s Island.

Then let’s add a line to the city’s fiscal year 2018 budget: “Implementation of the Lady’s Island Pathway Plan,” and ascribe to it a portion (15 percent?) of what’s left in the pot after the fire district gets paid.

Now the city’s actually got some skin in the game. People notice these things — especially government people. A modest commitment will bring with it modest credibility, which means people start paying attention. That’s when government gets beyond the talking stage and the real stuff starts happening.

But where to start?

The city should begin by staking out the position that the SCDOT should get off its current dark ages of the 20th century posture of replacing the Harbor Island Bridge with a bridge that has no hiker/biker walkway. Beaufort County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville will be right there with the city. State Sen. Tom Davis and the legislative delegation will surely come along too. 

It’s common sense. Why should Beaufort County have to pay for the bridge’s walkway out to one of the state of South Carolina’s signature parks — a park that is by the way growing in size, not shrinking.

The county should not have to pay. The SCDOT should pay for their bridge, including the part people walk and ride bikes on. And they would without a struggle in just about any other county in the state. 

But this is Beaufort County where Hilton Head Island is. So there’s going to be a struggle over who pays. 

Why should the city be in the forefront of the struggle? It is in the city’s interests that there be a good and safe hiker-biker path from the Woods Bridge to Hunting Island State Park.  

When the great path is finally built, and bike clubs from all over the Southeast come here to take that extraordinary (and no hills) ride through history, where will they sleep? In Beaufort’s hotels.

That’s just the beginning.

Now, having put the team together, the city should turn the team’s attention to choosing which portion of the Lady’s Island Pathways plan is the most popular and most doable, and then get to soliciting the state, the county, the SCDOT’s intermodal offices, private foundations, individual donors, and, yes, even the federal government to join the city in supporting Lady’s Island’s Pathway plan.

That’s how projects like these get built: with steady leadership, over time, a portion at a time, with many hands working — and egos buried — and many funding sources contributing.

Lady’s Island’s pathways and the trail to Hunting Island are good projects. They are worthy of the governments’ interest and support. 

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

Lady’s Island is Beaufort’s riddle

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By Bill Rauch

Lady’s Island was back in the news last week with 67 parcels there annexed into Beaufort and a big planning charrette at the elementary school that was organized by The Sea Island Corridor Coalition.

First, the big meeting. 

The city is way behind on reaching out to the residents of Lady’s Island. The meeting was basically the residents taking matters into their own hands. And, yes, of course the Coastal Conservation League sees in the void an opportunity to make some new friends and get in some contributions. Thus the snacks and crayons.

There was no harm done there except having attracted hundreds to their meeting, the organizers have gotten cocky and now think they may be able to go it alone without the city or the county.  That’s naive. 

To get what they want and for it to stick they’ll need to work with both governments, but especially the city whose responsibility it is under the Northern Beaufort County Regional Plan to manage the growth on Lady’s Island.

But the city has to be willing to do its part. And, in all candor, it appears to date it has not been. 

Why? Because the city has a problem. It wants the tax revenues from Lady’s Island, but it doesn’t want to incur the cost of delivering the services.

City Council has so underfunded its police department, for example, that the Beaufort PD isn’t able to answer most of the calls from the in-city parcels on Lady’s Island. The Beaufort police count on the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office for that.

Same with fire. Lady’s Island-St. Helena is carrying the load, although by intergovernmental agreement they are compensated by the city for doing so. 

And, of course, then there’s planning.

It’s past time to get real on Harris Teeter. No reasonable person can actually believe most of the shoppers who will shop at a Harris Teeter in the old Publix location will be pedestrians. The city needs the revenues, the chain wants to be in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood wants the store. It is time to end the stand-off. It’s OK for the parking lot to be on the Sea Island Parkway side like it was with Publix.

As suggested, most of the shoppers on Lady’s Island use automobiles to transport the goods they buy. Consultants can suggest more people should ride bicycles. Good. Maybe they will. It’s clearly healthy, except when you have to cross one of those five-lane roads. 

But more and more people want to live on Lady’s Island. That means there are more and more shoppers, and unless things change dramatically, there will thusly be more and more automobiles. 

Getting back to the meeting, so where’s the area traffic plan, including the intermodal part? Mayor Billy Keyserling said if he’d thought of it, he could have gotten for the city an integrated traffic plan for the big Publix intersection. But he didn’t. And the city doesn’t have one. 

The city’s transportation plan for Lady’s Island is characteristically “What can we get the county and SCDOT to do?”

No wonder the mayor kept his head down and his hands in his pockets at the big meeting.

It’s kind of like the embarrassing boats that slipped their anchors in Hurricane Matthew.

The mayor says he called a meeting of OCRM, DNR and DOT to try to get to the bottom of whose responsibility it is to get those boats off the Lady’s Island causeway to be either sold or scrapped. But, surprise, the state agencies each said cleaning up Beaufort’s waterfront is not their responsibility, nor is the project in any of their respective budgets.

Obviously the mayor thinks the city’s in the same boat: no responsibility, no money. So the junkyard continues. 

To be fair and not unduly critical, I applaud the mayor and council for the 67 annexations.   “Annexation” used to be a bad word with this group. Maybe with the added revenues from the new parcels the city will feel it has reached the critical mass on Lady’s Island such that it can begin delivering there the urban services that are implicit with the jurisdictional change.

Budget season approaches. Take note Lady’s Islanders. Take note Sea Island Corridor Coalition. It is there — and only there — that the true tale will be told. 

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

The Saga of Southside Park

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By Bill Rauch

This is a story of what happens when government changes its priorities. In the same breath let me hasten to add government should change its priorities. Priority-changing is the relentless reinventing that is the core strength of democracy.  

Sometimes, however, when governments change direction there are implications. This is a story about one such implication.

Previous Beaufort City Councils have consistently seen enhancing the city’s parks as a priority. Mayor Angus Fordham’s city council, for example in the 1960s, filled in what we know now as “The Marina Parking Lot,” fashioned a bandshell from a surplused quonset hut, called the new area “Freedom Mall,” and invited the public downtown for concerts. Here was where The Water Festival was begun.

Henry Chambers, in the 1970s, as we all know because the park is named for him, pushed through his signature accomplishment: the Waterfront Park that extended Freedom Mall to the Woods Bridge.

When David Taub was mayor in the 1990s, council began the long process of adding Southside Park to the city’s list of parks.

How was that done? I was there and I know firsthand.

David Taub and City Manager John McDonough had worked very hard negotiating a deal with The Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority (BJWSA) to sell at a fair price the city’s water and sewer works to them. The deal required the voters’ approval which was to be sought on the May 1999 ballot.  Also on that ballot were expected to be four well-known Beaufortonians — Henry Chambers, Billy Keyserling, Donnie Beer and myself — running to replace Taub as mayor since he had announced he would not seek reelection.

I was mayor pro tem at the time, and watching the Beaufort-Jasper deal go down I wondered whether the voters would vote for it, as I believed they should. Thinking about that, I saw a win-win. It would be an added incentive for the voters — especially for the all-important Mossy Oaks voters — to vote “yes” if they knew the site of the city’s stinky old Southside Boulevard sewage treatment plant would one day be turned into a neighborhood park.

I asked my campaign lawyer, now-State Senator Tom Davis, how that might be done and he suggested council vote to place a springing covenant on the land’s deed that would say “if and when the land is no longer needed for a sewage treatment plant, its ownership will revert to the city where it can only be used by the city for a neighborhood park.” Davis drafted up the covenant and council passed it unanimously several months before the election.

I ran on — among other issues — the BJWSA deal, and it was passed by the voters. The same voters the same day also elected me their mayor in a three-way race with Chambers and Beer (Keyserling had dropped out). And there the matter sat for a decade while the Water Authority built its Shell Point Plant, put the pieces into place to pump all the city’s sewage out to that plant, and then finally in about 2009 BJWSA surplused the Southside plant.

That’s when things got interesting.

At the time of the reversion, Tom Davis was representing the city on the BJWSA board. Davis favored the park, and there was a rumor that the park should be named for him. Unfortunately however by then the park’s name was mud.

After another unsuccessful run in 2004 — Billy Keyserling was by 2009 mayor and he was determined nothing good would come of the Southside Park deal. First he proposed breaking the perimeter of the park into lots and selling them one-by-one with the interior area serving as a kind of private park for the new owners of the perimeter parcels. But that proposal ran afoul of the springing covenant which had by then “sprung” by virtue of the land having reverted to the city. Next, Mayor Keyserling proposed planting the park’s open spaces in soybeans. But he couldn’t make that proposal fly either. Finally, frustrated, the city disbanded the park’s advisory committee, presumably because council didn’t want to hear any more requests for funding from them. And there the hapless park has sat, lucky to get mowed.

Last year, quelling an uproar from dog-owners who said they had waited too long for their promised park, the city put up some fences and called it a dog park. It is very popular. But more than a decade after it was first proposed, the perimeter trail is yet to be built. The bandstand and the playground are still just glints in the eye as well.  Building a bandstand, building a playground and even building a perimeter path are neither complicated nor expensive projects, if there’s a will to do them.

But there clearly is no will.

This city council’s announced priority is instead jobs: jobs for the children of the city’s residents. First they purchased and supported the Commerce Park. Then they purchased and are supporting the office building at Carteret and North streets where they are building a business incubator for high-tech companies.

I — and Mossy Oaks’ residents — hope these ambitious programs begin to work soon and bring in some tax revenues, because soon the grass at Southside will need mowing again. 

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

Developers propose new homes IN the fairways

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By Bill Rauch

Regular readers of this column may recall an analysis that appeared here in September 2016 showing that of the seven successful Beaufort County School District and countywide capital improvements referenda totaling about three-quarters of a billion dollars over the past 20 years, 60 percent of the money has gone to schools and roads in and around Bluffton.

Simply — and generously — stated, the Beaufort County Council didn’t adequately anticipate the public costs of the Sun City project when in 1991 they unanimously bought Del Webb’s argument that all the costs of the new city that would be built on the outskirts of Bluffton would be contained within the development.

We have been paying and paying ever since, and Bluffton has stayed pretty quiet. Why shouldn’t it?

The town of Bluffton had nothing formally to do with the 1991 Del Webb vote. However, let’s not forget most of the subsequent Del Webb spin-off development was permitted by Bluffton, which has further contributed to the public costs.

Interestingly, now things appear to be changing.

Bluffton is being driven by traffic jams and a new scarcity of parking to the tipping point. Oh yes, and by rising taxes too. The “rising tide,” it turned out, didn’t “float all boats.” It just floated the boats of the development community. And flashy speedboats they are.

As this column goes to press, Bluffton’s leaders are passing slow growth petitions.

The big paper companies’ timber tracts are all gone from Beaufort County now, so where will the new houses go?

No, not on the fairways. That was yesterday.

The new fashion is laying them up IN the fairways.

Golf courses along U.S. 278 are places into which millions of dollars have been invested within our recent memories for planning, clearing, filling out fairways and greens, sculpting out bunkers, building clubhouses and caddy shacks, making exotic grasses and shrubbery grow more beautifully and more.

But no matter. That was yesterday.

Take the case of the Hilton Head National Golf Club. Hilton Head National’s golf course was designed in 1988 by the great Gary Player and the new course was opened in 1990.

Now the property’s owner, Scratch Golf LLC, has asked Beaufort County to rezone the property from rural to a mix of commercial and residential neighborhood and hamlet designations under the county’s new CDC development code.

Where there are fairways, greens and bunkers, the owners seek now the government’s blessing to put 300 homes, 300 apartment units, 400,000 square feet of new retail space, a 500-room hotel, a 100,000-square-foot convention center, a 400-bed assisted living facility, a 1,500-seat performing arts center and a water park that would be visible from U.S. 278.

The new development will require two new schools be built, a flyover of U.S. 278 be constructed, and a new entrance fashioned that necessitates that at least one Heritage Lakes house be demolished, according to Tabor Vaux, who represents Bluffton on the Beaufort County Council.

Here’s the wrinkle. Hilton Head National isn’t contiguous to the town of Bluffton so it cannot be annexed into the town, and it is just outside Tabor Vaux’s councilmanic district. It is in Rick Caporale’s. But the traffic it will cause will be in Bluffton. So Vaux is asking who will pay.

Growth outside the town of Bluffton has been slow since 2008, and the county was caught a little flat-footed by Scratch Golf LLC’s proposal.

On Dec. 8, 2016, the county’s Planning Commission passed the rezoning 5-3 and sent the matter to the county council’s Nãtural Resources Committee, which rubber-stamped the rezoning and passed it along to the full Beaufort County Council.

That’s when reality began to set in.

On Jan. 9, the Beaufort County Council voted narrowly to table the rezoning until a development agreement can be negotiated.

Now a committee of county council members, chaired by Vaux, has been empanelled to formulate the agreement.

“This is a major, major project that is going to require tons of infrastructure. Who’s going to pay for that?” Vaux asks.

It’s a good question and one that could not be coming from a more appropriate corner.

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

So … uh … what’s the plan, Beaufort?

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rauch-column-photo

Photo above: The top of page 8 of Beaufort’s 1959 Annual Report shows the initial concept drawing of what would later become the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. On the right are the municipal accomplishments the group wanted emphasized.

By Bill Rauch

Contemplating a new year and new beginnings, as we do this week, gives rise to recalling times past.

In my estimation the most forward-thinking Beaufort City Council of the past century was the 1958-59 group that was led by Mayor Angus Fordham. The other four were banker and Mayor pro tem (later mayor) F.W. (“Willie”) Scheper III, pharmacist Charles Aimar, and Bay Street retailers D.L. Koth and Meyer Schein. Uniquely, and to their credit, the group published an “Annual Report,” that was distributed in the April 30, 1959, Beaufort Gazette.

These guys had their act together.

Saying “Today’s Dreams are Tomorrow’s Realities,” their report called for, among other civic improvements:

• The construction of a municipal sewer system that they got right on and opened soon after on the Waddell Gardens parcel where the city’s beleaguered Southside Park stands now;

• An improved waterfront that 15 years after they called for it became the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park;

• “Improved Municipal Docking Facilities” that would become the downtown marina;

• A street sweeper that wouldn’t finally be purchased until 2001;

• And “construction of a modern City Hall” that would finally be brought online almost exactly 50 years after they called for it.

Compare this to the current group’s long-term planning efforts. The most recent plan that is published on the city’s website is the now-discredited five-year-old Civic Master Plan that is actually little more than a proposed future zoning map.

But where’s the plan for how the new Boundary Street will be marketed and should develop once the construction is complete? There’s precious little about that in the original Boundary Street Plan.

The 1959 group, their annual report shows, had an Annexation Committee comprised of five civic leaders, two of whom were sitting city council members. The present group acts like “annexation” is a dirty word. Bluffton and Hilton Head each have their current strategic plans up on their websites. Both are actively growing, or trying to grow, their boundaries. So certainly is Port Royal. Is Beaufort’s current informal “make it like it was” approach a realistic strategy?

Mayor Fordham’s 1959 report says the city quadrupled yacht traffic from 1955-1958.

The city has gotten a grant to remake the outermost pier of its downtown marina. Good. The marina operator’s lease is up in two years.

Where’s the plan for maximizing Beaufort’s extraordinary natural advantage as a desirable stop-over location along the Intracoastal Waterway?

The city’s leaders say they want to create an atmosphere in Beaufort so that Beaufort’s young people don’t have to leave to get good jobs. Good. They’ve tried industrial development at the Commerce Park and high-tech development with the Carteret Street digital corridor project. More than $3 million has been spent on those initiatives with little, if any, tangible return.

Both decisions looked from the outside like spur-of-the-moment real estate buys.

Stepping beyond whim to professionalism, and trying to get the cart back behind the horse, if that’s the priority, why not put in the effort to get serious industrial development and high-tech development approaches into place? Get the school board, the Technical College of the Lowcountry, the chamber of commerce and the business community on board.

We can disagree on whether this is local government’s appropriate role.

If it’s the group’s priority, as it seems to be, then what better time than now to put the pieces into place?

With the flawed penny sales tax measure down the drain, a new administration in Washington and a new city council, what better time than now to look ahead? If we don’t, to paraphrase the 1959 group, “No dreams today will be no realities tomorrow.”

Beaufort County’s hurricane gamble pays off

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By Bill Rauch

When the dust has settled on this year’s hurricane season, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conventions, conferences and seminars begin early next year, the presenters will be talking about Beaufort County and its County Council chairman, Paul Sommerville.

Why?

Because Sommerville sniffed out a FEMA loophole, swiftly and expertly exploited it, and within days of Hurricane Matthew’s departure won for Beaufort County’s taxpayers an estimated $15 million prize. Moreover, here and only here in South Carolina today the debris Hurricane Matthew left behind in private communities is being picked up at government (local, state or federal) expense.

Meanwhile none of the other coastal disaster-declared South Carolina counties — Colleton, Charleston, Georgetown and Horry, nor Gov. Nikki Haley — are today even in the game. The debris is piled high along Horry and Georgetown’s private roads, and no one is picking it up. And in Charleston and Colleton counties today in the private communities, it’s every man for himself.

Here’s how it happened.

Half of Beaufort County’s roads are private, gated, and/or controlled by property owners’ associations. That means the cost of removing post-Matthew debris brought to the roadsides of half the roads in the county would not under FEMA’s regulations be reimbursed by FEMA.

There are only three exceptions to the FEMA policy: if there is a health emergency, if the county typically picks up debris from these places or if the county’s finances are such that it would go broke if it had to pay for the debris removal itself.

Beaufort County does not typically pick up yard waste along its privately-owned roads, and with a $30 million emergency reserve fund and additional borrowing capacity, the county would not face bankruptcy if it were forced to pay a $15 million unexpected bill.

But what about the health emergency angle?

After Hurricane Matthew moved on up the coast on Oct. 22, knowing the three exclusions, Sommerville reached out to State Sen. Tom Davis to ask Davis to ask Haley to declare a health emergency for all the affected counties. It was a reasonable request although had the governor granted it, it would have been unprecedented.

The governor’s office explained to me last week that it is their view that health emergencies are things like terrorist bio-medical attacks, rogue viruses and major chemical spills or releases. Not hurricanes. And that is what the governor told Davis in the days after the storm.

As the early signs back from Columbia appeared negative, Sommerville doubled down and called on former-Gov. Mark Sanford to intercede with Haley. Sanford now represents Beaufort County and much of the Carolina coast in the U.S. Congress.

But the governor continued to demur.

Leaving half of Beaufort County to fend for themselves was not an option for Sommerville. The county was going to pick up the debris on all the county’s roadsides, but would the county have to pay?

Or was there another way to get FEMA to pay for the removal of the estimated half-million cubic yards of debris that Hurricane Matthew left behind in Beaufort County’s private communities?

On Oct. 23, with a regularly scheduled county council meeting scheduled for the next afternoon, Sommerville wrestled with that question with Deputy County Administrator Josh Gruber and county attorney Tom Keaveny. Together the three settled on Beaufort County’s Code of Ordinances Sections 22-28, the local law that enables county council to issue proclamations and regulations concerning health, safety and disaster relief during civil emergencies. Proclaiming a health emergency would at least permit the county to change its own policy and start picking up on the private roads, and it might meet FEMA’s test to enable the federal reimbursement.

Sommerville started calling his council members to bring them in on the plan. That’s when he found most of them were still evacuated and wouldn’t be able to get to the Monday meeting. Some proposed canceling it, but Sommerville knew he had to get the health emergency declared before the county’s contractors could start picking up the private roads. So, speaking one-by-one with his members, he determined he could probably get a quorum together on Oct. 26, so he postponed the meeting.

At the postponed meeting, still with two of his 11 members absent, a lively discussion of the emergency health measure ensued both in the executive session period and later in open session. Some members who represented poorer districts were uncomfortable putting up to $20 million at risk. In fact no one much liked it.

But the alternative — telling the residents who live in POAs, and/or behind gates, and/or on private roads, telling half the county that they were going to have to go it alone — was worse. No one had a better idea, so Sommerville’s plan was finally passed by a vote of 8-1.

The following morning the county’s debris removal contractors started rolling into the county’s dozens of private communities, including hard-hit Fripp and Harbor islands that are represented by Sommerville.

That was a big step, but the big dollar question remained: Would the county be reimbursed by FEMA at the standard public roads level of 75 percent for the cost of the debris removal on the county’s private roads? Would the local Health Emergency Proclamation gambit work?

It didn’t take long to find out. On Nov. 1, FEMA sent word the agency would reimburse Beaufort County for its private roads debris pick-up costs. Current estimates are those costs will be about $20 million. Of this FEMA has agreed to reimburse at the standard 75-percent level.

A FEMA spokesman told me last week that Beaufort County’s Health Emergency Proclamation had been “an important factor” in the federal agency’s unusual and swift decision.

If the current value of the county’s mil is $1.75 million, Sommerville’s out-of-the-box health emergency proclamation saved Beaufort County’s taxpayers the equivalent of 8.6 mils on their property taxes next year.

Meanwhile, neither Colleton nor Charleston counties have even applied to FEMA to be reimbursed for private road debris pick-up costs. Colleton officials didn’t respond to repeated calls, but Edisto Beach residents have told me the residents on private roads there have been told they are on their own. That is also the case in Charleston County, a spokesperson for Charleston County confirmed last week.

In Georgetown and Horry counties, the debris continues to pile up along private road roadsides, spokespersons for those counties confirmed last week, because the county councils there don’t want to risk having to bear locally the costs of those cleanups. In Georgetown County, debris disposal site fees are being waived for private communities, a spokesman said. But both counties were still waiting at press time for word back from FEMA whether the federal agency will reimburse them. Neither Georgetown nor Horry have passed local health emergency measures.

Beaufort County announced last week that countywide debris pick-up will be handled in three “passes.” The county now has over 100 contractors working its debris removal job. Their enormous black trucks and trailers are a commonplace sight on Beaufort County’s roads — both the public and private ones — these days.

By week’s end, Beaufort County officials predict, their team will be approaching the conclusion of its “first pass,” and by then about half of the of countywide post-Matthew debris will have been picked up.

And Sommerville, a die-hard college football fan, can enjoy Saturday’s Clemson-Pitt game with his daughter, a junior at Clemson University, knowing Beaufort County’s army of debris removal contractors are hard at work at home picking up the rest … and on the feds’ tab.

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