Monday, December 21, 2015 Blog

The Beach Company’s “ugly bookends,” Conservation made permanent, I-526 on its last legs, businesses against offshore oil, Saving oaks

by Dana Beach

Folks,

This week’s news is generally about wrapping things up, which seems appropriate with only a few days left in 2015.

First, some great news, concluding a decade of hard work. Our friends at The Nature Conservancy, the Land Trust Alliance and a few other national conservation groups have spent years struggling to make the tax deduction for donated conservation easements permanent. On December 18th Congress approved the change.

The majority of the South Carolina coast’s 1.2 million protected acres are secured by conservation easements. (The remainder is in public ownership.) The deduction has provided an extremely important incentive for conservation-minded landowners and the legislation ensures that this vital instrument will survive in the future. Here is a description of the tax change from the Land Trust Alliance. (Incidentally, LTA’s vice president and our long time friend, Mary Pope Hutson, just retired to head the development effort at Sweetbriar College). Kudos to those groups that toiled for so long for this largely unheralded accomplishment.

The controversial proposal to tear down the Sargent Jasper apartments on Broad Street in Charleston and construct condominiums, offices and potentially a grocery store was also in the news, with a closed door negotiation between the city and the owners, the Beach Company. This excellent op-ed by Steve Bailey in the Post and Courier provides a retrospective on the two brothers, J.C. and Leonard Long, the progenitors of the current Beach company owners, who were responsible for the Sargent Jasper and the Darlington Apartments, buildings Bailey calls “ugly bookends in one of America’s most beautiful cities.” It is important to understand the culture of this company as the city moves toward resolving the dispute.

The Post and Courier reports that more than 400 businesses are calling on the governor to reverse her position supporting offshore oil exploration and extraction in South Carolina. Thus far, Governor Haley has been unmoved by the fact that every single coastal town and city has passed a resolution against this harmful Administration proposal, now following a permitting process overseen by the federal Bureau of Energy Management.

The S.C. Department of Transportation’s plans to execute John’s Island’s “Fenwick Oak,” which DOT Chairman Jim Rosier deemed a safety hazard, were put on hold last week after an outpouring of public concern. More than 2,500 people signed a petition on behalf of the tree in less than 15 hours.

On Wednesday, the City of Charleston presented an alternative to the DOT. We expect a decision from DOT Secretary Christie Hall shortly. This Channel 5 video featuring the Conservation League’s land use director, Natalie Olson, explains how illogical the DOT position is, and lays out a few simple options that could spare the life of the tree.

Finally, potentially wrapping up a 25 year long saga, the often-whimsical SC State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) board met on Tuesday. Former Conservation League board member Vince Graham now serves as chair of the STIB. The board passed a resolution giving Charleston County until March 31 to commit $350 million to finish I-526, or have the agency pull the plug on the project.

To put this vote in context, here’s a brief retrospective of the project’s controversial history:

A Long Time Ago, before most of you were born: Someone felt it would be a great idea to build a ring road around Charleston, just like Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, DC. Planning was commenced…

2006: The STIB approved $420 million to extend I-526 from its terminus West Ashley to rural Johns Island and then to James Island, ultimately connecting with the James Island Connector, which ends in one lane on Calhoun Street.

2011: After 4 years of public comments, hearings, editorials, billboards and general civic discord, Charleston County Council voted not to build the extension. In response, STIB board member, Richard Tapp, sent a letter claiming the county had breached the contract with the STIB and threatened to “intercept” state funding to the county for basic services. Shortly thereafter, bowing to pressure, the council reversed its earlier position and voted to move forward.

Somewhat later in 2011: The County submitted an alternative road package to the STIB to reduce congestion West Ashley and on James and Johns Islands. The package was 1.) more effective, 2.) less controversial and 3.) less expensive than extending I-526. The STIB rejected the county package with the simple message, “Build I-526 or we will send the money to Greenville. We know where you live.” (or something to that effect.)

2012: A new cost estimate placed the project price at $556 million. The County asked the SCDOT to take responsibility for the project, but the SCDOT, concerned about being saddled with legal bills and higher costs, voted against doing so, leaving I-526 in official orphan status. At the recommendation of former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, (and perhaps inspired by financier Bernie Madoff), the STIB board promised another $150 million — which, based on the STIB’s bonding schedule, it would not have until the year 2035.

Then as 2012 drew to a close: The city of Charleston, at the behest of Mayor Riley, agreed to assume financial and management responsibility for I-526.

2013: The County, uncomfortable over the potential management by the City of Charleston, voted to re-assume responsibility for permitting and construction.

2015, a few months ago: The DOT presented a revised cost estimate for I-526 of $725 million. County Council Chair Elliott Summey said that the county should not be required to put any more money into the project and asked the STIB to pay the difference (more than $300 million). The STIB, (actually, Senator Hugh Leatherman, a STIB board member, speaking on behalf of the board), said that the STIB would not cover more than the original $420 million.

Which brings us to this week’s meeting, and the resolution. It is difficult to imagine any scenario under which the I 526 extension could be built. The question is how much longer it will to take to put the patient out of its misery and reprogram the $420 million toward a beneficial purpose, of which there are legion, especially considering the damage from October’s 1,000 year flood. Regardless of the outcome, one thing is crystal clear — this is no way to run a transportation program, a point, al worth keeping in mind when the Legislature begins debating a gas tax increase this coming session.

Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s!

Dana


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