Almost 6,000 Berkeley County property owners can expect a refund soon if they paid a fee for building roads in the rapidly growing county.
Circuit Judge R. Markley Dennis Jr. signed an order granting preliminary approval to a $6.5 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by four residents and three businesses.
The final approval, which would refund property owners about 50 percent of their fee, is expected to come during a June 29 hearing.
“This is a great day for thousands of homeowners and businesses in Berkeley County,” said lawyer Ross Appel of McCullough Khan, who represented the plaintiffs with Jay Ward of Richardson, Patrick, Westbrook & Brickman.
Their lawsuit alleged the county collected about $12 million in impact fees for infrastructure between 2006 and 2014 but only spent about $1.9 million of that by a June 2014 deadline. The suit was granted class-action status in December.
The fee was assessed to property owners in the fast-growing, unincorporated southwestern part of the county, including homes in and around Cane Bay Plantation.
The fee for a single-family residence was $1,348, while commercial, industrial and educational developments were assessed depending on the type of use and their expected impact on traffic.
For instance, a 1,200-square-foot soup-and-sandwich shop was assessed $4,600 in 2014, while a 3,000-square-foot general retail store was charged more than $19,000, according to county records.
Berkeley County School District paid $215,177 in impact fees for Nexton Elementary School and $227,650 for Cane Bay Middle. It also paid the fee for Cane Bay High and Cane Bay Elementary, but those figures were not available Monday.
Claiming schools are the result of growth, not the cause of it, the district sought an exemption from the fee, but state lawmakers failed to pass a bill in 2011 that would have provided such a break.
The fee was started in 2006 under Supervisor Jim Rozier and was intended to pay for road improvements, bridges and traffic signals. It was to remain in effect for 15 years, or until 2021.
Two years later, still struggling to keep up with the demands on infrastructure, county residents passed a 1 percent sales tax, which was renewed in 2014 with the promise of ending impact fees. The county repealed the 8-year-old policy in December 2014.
Both current Supervisor Bill Peagler and former Supervisor Dan Davis said the fee hurt development in the lower part of the county.
Davis has called the fee “a business-killer and one of the worst things that Berkeley County has ever done.”
Peagler said Monday, “It is unfortunate that (Davis) administration placed us in the position we are in now. As elected officials, entrusted by Berkeley County residents to protect their tax dollars paid to the county, we believe the agreement reached honors that responsibility.”
Attorneys on both sides have been in settlement talks since December. Clay McCullough, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said the settlement “is in the best interest of the class and the people of Berkeley County.”
Notices will be mailed within 15 days to the property owners deemed eligible for a refund by the court based on data provided by Berkeley County.
To participate in the settlement, class members do not have to do anything other than wait for their checks to arrive in the mail, but property owners can let the county keep their share, if they choose.
State law requires current property owners to receive the refunds, under the assumption that the previous owners passed this added expense along during the sale of the property.