Just two days after promising to work together, the Berkeley County School District threatened legal action against the city of Hanahan over a denied rezoning request.
In a letter to Hanahan Clerk of Council Kim Peters, Paul A. Dominick of Nexsen Pruet law firm wrote Thursday that the district "is considering what legal steps to take in response to the denial" of a request to rezone a site near Tanner Plantation for a $28 million elementary school for 900 students.
The letter, which was obtained by The Post and Courier through a S.C. Freedom of Information Act request, says the city and everyone involved are obligated not to destroy documents pertaining to the issue, including emails, calendars, voice mail messages, texts, audio recordings and more.
The letter "was very unfortunate, without merit, and does not reflect the spirit of cooperation that took place throughout the process," said Hanahan Mayor Minnie Caldwell-Newman. "We did our best to work with the district, but a site was selected without input from the residents or city and ultimately could not overcome the concerns associated with the location."
School Board Chairman Kent Murray said Friday that the letter is part of the appeals process. The district will decide within a week whether it will pursue legal action, he said.
The district issued a statement Friday that said, in part, "Based on the advice of legal counsel, the district wishes to preserve our ability to explore the zoning application appeal process as outlined by the City of Hanahan zoning code and the zoning codes of the State of South Carolina. An appeal of the zoning application would allow the district to maintain an open and concurrent dialogue with city council and local developers."
On Tuesday, representatives from the district and the city spent more than six hours behind closed doors - a move S.C. Press Association lawyer Jay Bender called illegal - trying to hash out details that would allow a school to be built on a tract that is part of Bowen Village, also known as the Foster Creek Planned Development.
That included adding 2 acres to the 10.88-acre site, which some said was too small for a school.
At two information meetings during the first week of December, several residents said they felt the district and the city were at odds.
"I feel like I've walked into a power struggle between council and the Board of Education," said Hanahan resident Ben Lewis.
After district lawyer George Bullwinkel and others suggested that the entities try to work together, Newman-Caldwell called the closed-door meeting that ended a couple of hours before Tuesday's City Council meeting.
"We wanted to kind of offer up the olive branch and say, 'What can we do as a city? How can we work together so that everyone in our community benefits from this?' " Newman-Caldwell said.
If a site is not approved by January, the projected August 2015 opening will be delayed, Bullwinkel said.
For that reason, the district hoped the city would pass the first reading, and "if we get to (the final reading in) January and you still feel the same way, vote no," Bullwinkel said.
Despite the effort, council unanimously denied the rezoning request, upholding the city planning commission's Nov. 5 decision, which was also unanimous. Both groups requested more information and offered the district the chance to defer the issue, but the district declined to do so.
Councilmen Kevin Cox and Jeff Chandler said Superintendent Rodney Thompson threatened after the commission meeting to move the school to Goose Creek if the rezoning from multi-family to "village community one" was not approved. Thompson was not at the council meetings on Dec. 3 or Tuesday but was at a district-sponsored meeting Dec. 5 and in the closed-door meeting Tuesday.
District officials have said they are required to build the school "in the Tanner Plantation area" as was promised in the referendum approved by voters in November 2012 to raise taxes to fund it.
Residents have questioned how the school will affect traffic in an already congested area, and whether the site will provide a safe route for students who walk or ride bikes. Residents also are concerned about parking and green space, and the possibility that two cemeteries, a church and a house may have to be relocated so that roads can be widened.
City officials are worried that the city will lose about $200,000 annually in fees and taxes if the school replaces residential units planned for the site. Newman-Caldwell said that would force the city to raise taxes for the first time in more than a decade.
"Our meeting with the school board was very productive," Cox said. "I walked out of there with a smile on my face. ... Dr. Thompson, Dr. Murray, everybody had very good ideas that they brought to the table."
Cox voted against the rezoning in part because he was concerned that the district presented documents at the beginning of Tuesday night's meeting and expected council to vote on them that night.
"(The district has) been on the site since August 2013. We got a tremendous amount of information today. There's no way I want to sit here and try to digest everything," he said.
After the rezoning was denied, Councilman Michael Sally told district officials, "I believe you have the best interests of Hanahan in your heart, and we do too, so I think we just need to hash this out. ... We're going to continue to work with you. We're going to continue to dig this out until we get it done."
On Thursday, the letter from Dominick arrived.
"I want our residents to know that though we are disappointed with this measure taken by BCSD, it will not have an affect on how we move forward and the promises we have made to the community to find the best and fastest possible solution for our educational needs in Hanahan," Newman-Caldwell said.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.
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