Fraser wary of Beach Co.’s Kiawah River plan

The Beach Co. wants to develop 2,000 acres of land along the Kiawah River that it owns on Johns Island.

The Beach Co. is asking the Charleston County School District to consider participating for the next 45 years in a controversial plan to pay for improvements to its Kiawah River Plantation, and that’s too long said school board Chairman Chris Fraser.

The Beach Co. on Monday presented its plan for paying for improvements to the high-end, 2,000-acre development on the southern end of Johns Island. The presentation was simply for information, but the school board could be asked to vote on the plan, known as a tax-increment financing district, or TIF, in the coming months.

A TIF pays for improvements to a development with future tax revenue it will generate. The plan is controversial because it would divert tax dollars to a private development. It also has raised concerns among some Johns Island residents that it will promote other development and sprawl.

The Kiawah River TIF would generate about $85 million over the next 45 years, Beach Co. officials have said. And $63 million of that would come from revenue that otherwise would go to the school district.

The school board has participated in other TIFs, Fraser said, but never one that ran for 45 years. He thinks that’s simply too long.

“That totally doesn’t work,” Fraser said. “That’s a non-starter as far as the school district is concerned for me.”

Beach Co. President John Darby said the company could perhaps develop a plan that would require a shorter commitment for the school district.

But the longer-term plan likely would generate more money for the district down the road, he said. Now, the largely undeveloped Kiawah River property brings in only about $1,900 per year in taxes for the school district, but after 45 years, it could bring in $10.4 million, he said.

Jake Libaire, a project manager with the Coastal Conservation League, which is opposed to the TIF, said he doesn’t think the school district should go along with a plan that takes money from public education.

And it could set a precedent for resort developments in which few children will live that are looking for a way to opt out of paying for public education, he said. Funding for public education shouldn’t be treated as a user fee, he said. “Everybody should pay for public education.” The TIF, he said, “treats public education like a toll road.”

Fraser also said the Beach Co.’s presentation to the school board might have been premature. The nine-member board could have as many as five new members after the November election, and that newly configured board likely would be the one to vote on whether to participate.

The district is one of four groups being asked to participate in the plan that would generate money for improvements to Kiawah River, such as roads, fire services and a sewage-treatment facility. The others are Charleston County, Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission and St. Johns Fire District Commission.

St. Johns commissioners voted in August not to participate because they figured the plan ultimately would cost taxpayers $20 million over the next 20 years.

Charleston County staffers are in the process of developing a financial plan, as well as a plan to build and manage a sewer plant for the 2,000-acre development.

They are expected to bring the plan to County Council for approval in the next few months.