Battle over tiny park is coming to a vote

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley wants the city to take the tiny park in the Longborough neighborhood through eminent domain.

The long-simmering battle over a tiny, waterfront park in the upscale Longborough neighborhood likely will end Tuesday, but chances are good nobody will come out of the skirmish a big winner.

A circuit judge earlier this summer awarded ownership of the park to the Longborough Owners Association. But Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has been pushing for City Council to take the upper-peninsula park on the Ashley River through eminent domain, and make it a public park.

Using the power of eminent domain, governments can force a property owner to sell land for the greater good after a fair market value is determined.

Council will vote on the matter Tuesday. To move forward with Riley’s plan, seven of the 13 voting council members — which include Riley and 12 council members — have to vote in favor of it.

So far, Riley and four council members said they likely would vote in favor of the plan: William Dudley Gregorie, Keith Waring, Dean Riegel and Bill Moody.

Five members said they have concerns about the plan, including the rights of the property owners in Longborough, and they wanted to learn more about it before deciding how they will vote. Those members are Aubry Alexander, Marvin Wagner, Mike Seekings, Kathleen Wilson and Gary White.

The final three members — James Lewis, Robert Mitchell and Rodney Williams — could not be reached by phone or email Monday.

Moody said the property was supposed to be deeded to the city years ago, but that didn’t happen. So he likely will vote in favor of the city acquiring it. That means the homeowners group will lose property they say they were told they owned, and the city will have to pay market rate for the park, he said. “It’s a lose-lose,” he said. “There’s no way to win this one.”

Councilman Gary White said the property likely will cost well over $1 million. But he’s concerned about more than the cost. “Any time we consider eminent domain, it obviously gives me pause,” he said.

Members of the Longborough Owners Association could not be reached by phone or email Monday. But in July, they said there was no reason for the city to take the park through eminent domain because they were willing to allow public access from dawn to dusk, and to cover the cost of maintaining the park.

But Riley said that if the park is owned privately, Longborough residents would have rights that exceed the public’s rights. And he thinks the public should have equal access to the park and an equal say on how it’s maintained.

The legal dispute dates back more than a decade, when the city entered into a verbal agreement with The Beach Co., which began developing Longborough in 2001. The park, which sits on a public street, was to be turned over to the city and would remain open to the public, Riley has said.

That was fair because to make way for the development, where homes can sell for prices in the high six figures, the company demolished Shoreview Apartments, a large low-income housing project with Ashley River views, Riley said.

But Cary Chastain, president of the owners group, has said people bought their homes and land with the understanding that the owners group also owned the park, and the prices they paid reflected that understanding.

City Councilman Dean Riegel said he’s disappointed there wasn’t a more clear agreement between the city, the Beach Co. and the property owners. But he supports the city taking the park. “It’s an asset and a wonderful park that should be shared with all the citizens of Charleston.”

Reach Diane Knich at (843) 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknch.