Column: When they get behind closed doors
There are roughly 16,000 people who live near the Bees Ferry county landfill in West Ashley.
Last week, Charleston County Council got a petition signed by 160 of them — about 1 percent — asking them to please not build a new recycling facility next to the landfill.
So why didn’t more people sign?
Well, probably because they didn’t know about it.
A couple weeks ago the council’s Finance Committee voted, 5-4, to put the recycling center at Bees Ferry. But the discussion about whether to build there or in North Charleston happened in executive session, which is closed to the public.
They said they were discussing contracts, but there are no contracts at this point. Alas, the private chat kept things from getting stirred up — until word leaked out.
And then, instant controversy.
The county’s high-priced waste management consultant had recommended Bees Ferry, and several West Ashley council members went along with the idea in the name of consolidating services.
It could have all gone down this past week, petition or no, if not for a couple of things: Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The West Ashley site made so much sense, at least in terms of consolidation, that Colleen Condon was willing to take the political heat for building at Bees Ferry.
Everyone from that side of the county — save for Vic Rawl, whose district includes the landfill — voted to put the new facility on one of two sites in the city’s fast-growing suburb.
Truth is, no matter what the county said, neither of those sites was going to fly easily.
One of the parcels is owned by some folks who are suing the county over the height of the current landfill. That looked like a good option — buy the land, the lawsuit goes away.
But that property is in the city, and Riley would make sure the county never got the industrial zoning it needed.
The other site is in the county, but includes about 5 acres of wetlands. The county would have had to go through a lengthy permitting process to fill in those wetlands, and then might not get approved. At the same time, because of federal law, the county would have had to find 5 acres of wetlands somewhere else to preserve forever.
As much sense as it made to stick recycling and garbage in the same area, it was going to be a pain either way.
It’s a wonder the consultants recommended the site.
Councilwoman Anna Johnson, who had initially supported the Bees Ferry recycling center option, was under the impression that the city supported the idea.
Maybe she took that from their silence. In truth, they didn’t know — Riley never even got a courtesy call, and found out only after the Finance Committee vote.
When Riley explained all this to Johnson, she switched her vote. (She really has to be tired of being the swing vote.)
But the mayor was persuasive.
“I felt that the city’s future was on the line,” Riley says.
Maybe so. And even if it wasn’t, plans to stick a major industrial entity in an area that’s gone suburban was certainly worthy of a public debate.
“They started on the wrong foot, trying to do it in secret,” council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey says. “It never should have happened in executive session.”
So now the new recycling center is probably headed to Palmetto Commerce Parkway, and council Chairman Teddie Pryor says they are done with the issue.
That’s good — the county has enough on its plate these days, and has suffered through more than its share of controversy in the past year, between I-526 and that TIF district thing.
If they’d learned anything from those flare-ups, they might have avoided this drama.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.