New meaning of ‘compensation’

  • Posted: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 12:01 a.m.

When you talk about compensating property owners for a highway project, the general notion is that the landowners will be getting cash.

But property owners along the I-526 corridor who were expecting something extra from Charleston County, in the wake of a County Council vote last December, might be doomed to disappointment.

Last week, Council Chairman Teddie Pryor declared that property owners won’t be getting any additional cash from the county despite an amendment by Council member Anna Johnson to that effect.

“Councilwoman Johnson never said anybody was going to get a check,” Mr. Pryor told our reporter Diane Knich last week. “Look at the ordinance. It said ‘good faith effort.’ It didn’t say we’re going to put money in anybody’s pocket. The ordinance is the ordinance.”

Those property owners have to be wondering what council was thinking when it approved the amendment. Was it really serious about a broader plan for payments to nearby property owners? Or was the compensation provision included to gain a majority vote to push the project forward?

Only five councilmen endorsed the I-526 extension, west of the Ashley, and on James and Johns islands.

And the amendment was crucial in putting the project over the top. Without it, Council member Johnson would have been unlikely to join the prevailing side on that Dec. 2012 vote.

The terms of that amendment seem fairly straightforward.

County staff was instructed to “make good faith efforts to evaluate and consider claims made by residents for compensation due to the impact of the MCE [Mark Clark Expressway] on their property.”

That amendment was expected to create a larger pool of landowners than those who would receive compensation from the state Department of Transportation. DOT policy is to purchase property within a project corridor and its right of way, generally ranging from 250 to 400 feet wide for an interstate project.

County Council’s amendment presumably put the county on the line to pay additional funds to 3,082 property owners.

That might not be a fiscally responsible position for the county to take, but it’s what council voted to do. The ordinance says “compensation,” which by virtually any definition means money.

If the amendment had been intended to refer to sound barriers and berms, it would have said “mitigation.”

Council members Colleen Condon and Dickie Schweers, who voted against the project, say the intent was clearly to provide extra financial compensation.

A county brochure on the project says that residents who “feel their expectations were not met by the mitigation and/or minimization techniques implemented to address the MCE’s environmental impacts” will have an opportunity to “voice their concerns” in making claims to the county.

At this point, council needs to publicly address the compensation issue before commencing discussions about the county assuming a larger role in the management of this project.

So far, Ms. Johnson hasn’t said what she thinks about the various interpretations of the amendment. Certainly, her constituents would like to hear her views.

Indeed, they might reasonably think some mitigation is in order if compensation is no longer a consideration. Like another vote on I-526.

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