Daniel Island residents decide to abandon annexation effort

Ralston Creek golf course meanders through Daniel Island Park - the country club neighborhood on Daniel Island. The Daniel Island Neighborhood Association voted Tuesday to abandon annexation effort.

For years, Daniel Island residents have wondered if the grass would be greener in Charleston County, the land of curbside recycling, extensive county parks and lower taxes.

This week, any dreams they may have had of seceding from Berkeley County were sunk by laws community leaders called outdated and confusing.

The Daniel Island Neighborhood Association voted Tuesday to uphold a decision by the Daniel Island Property Owners Association not to spend an additional $100,000 to investigate joining Charleston County, effectively abandoning the effort.

Last summer, the neighborhood association asked the POA to explore the possibility of switching counties. The main issues were schools, roads, taxes, 911 service, mosquito abatement and curbside recycling. The 4,000-acre island is in the city of Charleston and Berkeley County.

But the project became a victim of bureaucracy.

"State annexation laws are simply archaic, ill-defined, and provide no clarity on some of the most pressing questions, such as school district lines, debt allocation and even surveying requirements," said Jane Baker, vice president of community services for the Daniel Island Property Owners Association.

Local state lawmakers agreed but said they are unsure if laws will be changed as a result.

"The laws were developed at a time when counties were evolving," said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston. "They were not really intended for large populations, and they have only been used a handful of times in the last century."

Possible issues would have included debt transfer and ownership of physical property, such as the K-8 school and library. Charleston County could have been forced to buy the buildings, with the costs borne by the island's taxpayers.

"The law ... has not kept up with the needs as they exist today," said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston. "Annexation or even the discussion of annexation has become untenable."

The four-member commission appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to study the issue, initially allocated a $25,000 budget from the POA by state law, later requested an additional $100,000 to fund three required surveys.

"The POA is not in a position to move forward with the annexation commission's request for an additional $100,000," Baker said. "It is fairly clear that legislative change is needed. Until such time as clarity is added to the law, the POA will not spend further time or funding on this initiative."

The requirement for multiple surveys was written before the Internet, said Daniel Island Co. President Matt Sloan.

"The information needed to understand the boundaries of Daniel Island exists on the county's website," he said. "The surveys add no value to the discussion . and to have three sets of survey markers in the marsh all the way around the Island is absurd."

It also became clear to the leaders of the movement that they were likely looking at years and years of litigation to sort through all the issues.

"Personally, I feel it is unfortunate that politics has played such a huge role in this campaign and that antiquated laws seem to be winning out over common sense solutions," said Dave Williams, president of the neighborhood association.

Sloan also believes residents should have been allowed to choose.

"Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the residents should have the ability to fully study the issues and get to vote without unreasonable obstacles," he said.

Berkeley County Supervisor Dan Davis said he is pleased with the decision.

"We never wished for Daniel Island to secede from Berkeley County," he said. "However, we didn't want to impede their right to proceed with the democratic process. We remain committed to all Berkeley County citizens, including the residents and businesses on Daniel Island."

County Councilman Tim Callanan, a Daniel Island resident, said he hopes that is the case. County and school district officials should learn from this experience, he said.

"I don't care if it's people in my district or someone else's district, when you have a large group of people this disenchanted with county government, that's never a good thing," he said. "No matter how this thing resolved itself, it doesn't allow us to ignore the fact that there's an issue out there that needs to be addressed."

Throughout the process, Berkeley County officials seemed to be spending more time on Daniel Island listening to residents' needs, Baker said.

Williams agreed.

"Berkeley County has done a much better job (than Charleston County) answering the questions and concerns posed by residents," he said.

The fact-finding mission revealed that property taxes are lower in Charleston County and insurance rates vary by company, Baker said.

Taxes on a $400,000 home in Berkeley County are about $2,764, compared with $2,053 in Charleston County, according to the annexation commission. That does not include school taxes.

"It's an undeniable fact that Daniel Island as a whole would save significant tax dollars being in Charleston County," Williams said. "I hope town officials and administrators will continue to invest both time and energy listening to the residents of Daniel Island, and making our community feel like we are getting equal representation for the tax dollars we are spending."

Berkeley County School District Superintendent Rodney Thompson said he was also happy to hear the effort is being dropped.

"With the input of a committee comprised of residents, the district has continued to proceed with plans for the two new schools to be built in the Cainhoy and Daniel Island area," he said. "We look forward to the opportunities the new facilities will provide."

The annexation effort initially gathered steam because island residents were worried about where their children would attend school. They did not want their middle-schoolers bused off the island to a new facility planned for Clements Ferry Road next to a new high school.

When the school district decided in October to keep Daniel Island School as is, it took away some of the energy from the secession effort. Williams hailed the district's decision as a victory for residents but acknowledged it would be more difficult to pass an annexation referendum by the required two-thirds vote.

If the island switched counties, Charleston County School District officials said Daniel Island students could attend the county's magnet schools but did not specify which high school students would attend. Residents wanted their children, who currently go to Hanahan High, to be zoned for Wando.

All that became further complicated in February when the state Attorney General's Office issued an opinion that the school district lines would not automatically change with a county shift, which Berkeley School District officials had said all along. The opinion encouraged seeking a declaratory judgment.

When the effort started in August, one of the first steps was for the POA to gather signatures from at least 10 percent of the island's 4,850 voters requesting a referendum. About 750 people signed the petition, which was sent to the governor in November.

The governor appointed John Tiencken, Michael White, Shirley Hinson and John West to an annexation commission in early December.

Tiencken said Wednesday the commission will now write a letter to Haley informing her of the situation.

"I expect that would be what should happen if the petitioners no longer wish to proceed," he said.

If the issue had been put to voters and failed to gain approval from two-thirds of voters, it could not be brought up again for four years.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.