AWENDAW — Charleston County taxpayers spent $5.2 million on a park site for this small town, but the park’s development hinges on how quickly County Council’s chairman can make money from the land.
Elliott Summey’s company Jackson Development placed the low bid to build the park and signed a unique contract in which he has the right to mine and sell dirt to create a lake in exchange for developing trails, open grassy areas and unpaved parking lots and supplying potable water. Summey also might build restroom facilities if he brings in enough money. And the contract allowed him to clear the land and sell the timber.
Those involved say the deal is not only ethical but also a cost-effective way — and the only way — for the town to get its own park.
But a recent inspection by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control found mining work going on at the site that was not in compliance with its permit.
Local residents also have raised concerns about the scope of the mining operation, which has jumped from digging enough dirt to create a 50-acre lake to one of 80 acres or more. And they question whether mining currently is happening on more than 5 of the property’s 291 acres, which is what is allowed on the mine’s current short-term permit from DHEC. They also worry about what impact mining could have on the environment and the local community.
“There needs to be an impact study,” said Chris Crolley, owner of Coastal Expeditions and an Awendaw resident. “Nobody on Town Council is a geologist or a hydrologist.”
According to the contract, the first phase of the park was to be completed by the town’s 2015 Blue Crab Festival, the town’s signature event that happens each October.
But Summey said the work slowed because plans originally given to his company from the town were flawed and because of last fall’s historic rains.
Summey and Bill Wallace, the town administrator, said they now hope that portion of the park will be ready for the 2016 festival.
Summey also was supposed to submit quarterly reports as well as an annual report on his progress by the end of the calendar year. But he hasn’t submitted any quarterly reports, Wallace said.
Summey submitted an annual report for 2015 on Monday, after he was interviewed by The Post and Courier. Wallace said he can’t release that report until Town Council reviews it to determine if it can or must be released under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said under the act, “there is no legitimate reason for the town to withhold this report.”
Money to purchase the 291-acre Jefferson tract for the park came from the county’s Greenbelt program, which was funded by a voter-approved half-cent sales tax for transportation projects and land preservation.
In 2009, Summey joined the majority of County Council members in voting to approve the land purchase on Doar Road, which included a plan to create a lake there by mining and selling dirt.
Wallace said a park with a lake, trails and open areas is needed in Awendaw, which sits in the Francis Marion National Forest. The park’s new lake will provide a place for children to swim, fish and kayak, he said. And the town can hold gatherings in the park’s grassy areas.
He also said the park eventually will serve as a link in the East Coast Greenway, which will provide a 2,900-mile connection from Maine to Florida. And it will connect to the Palmetto Trail, an emerging east-west route running from Oconee County in the Upstate to the coast.
“We have 500,000 acres of trees,” Wallace said. “We don’t have a lake.”
The only way the town of about 1,300 residents will get its park is through its arrangement with Summey to sell dirt to pay for its development, Wallace said.
That arrangement calls for Jackson Development to do $500,000 in work on the park in exchange for the dirt mining rights to recoup its costs. Once the company recovers its costs, it is to give the town 20 percent of the going rate for dirt. When Summey signed the contract it was $2.50 per cubic yard, but at least 50 cents for every cubic yard.
The contract with Summey states that Jackson Development can dig a lake up to 80 acres, even though the town’s Greenbelt application said the lake would be 50 acres.
Wallace said the market for dirt will drive the ultimate size of the lake, as well as the layout and how long it takes to complete the park. It’s unclear how much dirt will be mined because it’s only profitable to remove “good dirt,” or dirt useful in local construction work, Wallace said.
Good dirt is sandy, drains easily and won’t compress much. Dirt from wetlands or that contains a lot of organic material isn’t good for building road beds and other construction.
If Summey finds good dirt that runs deep, he likely will build a smaller, deeper lake. But if the good dirt is found only in limited areas near the surface, Summey would build a larger, shallower lake, Wallace said. And the lake could exceed 80 acres.
Summey said so far, his mining has occurred only in a small area in the center of the property. He got a limited permit from DHEC to mine those first 5 acres.
The area originally specified for the lake on the south end of the property is made up of bad dirt, Summey said, so the lake most likely will be built on the northern end of the site.
Summey said he took on the challenge because he wanted the experience of developing a park, and because he knew the park would be completed if he were the one doing it.
He has applied for a mining permit to dig the rest of the lake, he said.
Wallace said the application includes the site’s total acreage because nobody yet knows which portion of it holds the best dirt.
The market for dirt now is pretty good, Summey said. If it remains that way, he can finish the lake in five years.
“But the market will drive the lake.”
He also said he hired the Robert O. Collins Co. to do the mining work. Robert “Shank” Collins is a friend of his, Summey said, and is experienced in the dirt mining business.
Summey and Collins have done business together before. In the summer of 2014, Summey and Collins made arrangements with Donald Mullis to mine dirt on Mullis’ property on Hyde Park Road in Ravenel. The dirt was to be sold to Boeing.
When a DHEC inspector found an equipment operator mining outside the permitted area, the operator immediately called Summey, according to a DHEC report.
DHEC fined both Mullis and Collins $1,000 for mining activity beyond the scope of what was permitted.
Summey also was copied on emails between county staffers and an employee from the engineering firm Davis & Floyd, who on behalf of the mining operation requested a special exception from Charleston County to extend the hours the mine was allowed to operate to meet a tight Boeing deadline. In one of those emails, county planning employees mentioned discussing the application with Summey.
Summey said his role in the Hyde Park mine was simply as a real estate agent. “I put them together and I got out of the way,” he said.
He did ask county staffers about the status of the special exception, he said. He only asked for information that he passed along, he said, and didn’t try to influence the answer.
Summey’s dealings with the town of Awendaw don’t violate any state ethics laws, said John Crangle, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause South Carolina.
Herb Hayden, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said officials must disclose on their statement of economic interest forms any compensation received from a business that contracts with the governmental entity they are associated with.
In Summey’s case, he is doing business with the town of Awendaw, not the county.
Summey, however, did disclose his work with the town on his statement of economic interest March 29, the day he was interviewed by the newspaper for this story. Crangle said he encourages public officials to use an abundance of caution when completing those statements.
“Nobody is going to accuse you of doing more than you’re required to do,” he said.
DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said there will be a public hearing on Summey’s mining application for the 291 acres for the Awendaw park in the next few months, but no date has been set.
The department generally holds public hearings on applications that have drawn comments and letters from 10 or more people, or from one person who represents 10 or more people, he said.
Grant Reeves, president of the Bulls Bay Overlook Community Association, a 38-property development across the road from the park site, submitted letters to DHEC on March 24 and 31. He said his group was opposed to the permit being issued for technical reasons and opposed to “any increase in the scope of mining that does not address existing and future impacts.”
In an interview, Reeves said one of the group’s concerns is the potential increase in the size of the lake.
He also said he thinks Summey already has mined more than the 5 acres allowed under his current, initial DHEC permit. He said that based on Google Earth images from October 2015, nearly 12 acres have been disturbed by mining activity.
Summey said digging has occurred on more than 5 acres, but some of that was done to build roads to access the site, not for mining.
DHEC spokesman Robert Yanity said the department conducted an inspection of the mine on Feb. 22 and found it wasn’t in compliance with DHEC rules. The case has been referred to the agency’s enforcement division.
Yanity said he can’t say what kind of violations occurred while the case is in the enforcement process, but eventually its details will be made public.
The department soon will issue Jackson Development a “Notice of Violation,” Yanity said.
The mine will be inspected again in the next several days, Beasley said.
Summey said issues with DHEC were resolved Friday and he expects a letter from the Department Monday stating that is the case.
Reeves also said that he has engaged in conversations with Summey and thinks Summey ultimately will do a good job, better than if the project were left to the town. “The town of Awendaw, I hate to say it, seems to have more problems than it should for a town this size,” he said.
In recent years, critics have raised concerns about the town’s handling of its fire and water services as well as its annexation policies.
Reeves said he thinks the issues will be worked out. “We expect a public hearing will result in changes that will prevent problems that have occurred in other places,” he said.
Crolley said he loves the idea of a park and a pond being built in the town. But he has concerns about the impact of dirt mining.
“I would like to see a study on the impact on the Awendaw aquifer,” he said. “I’m not a scientist, but I would like to hear from one.”
The water level in the ocean is rising and the town is experiencing king tides more often, Crolley said. “The idea of taking dirt out of Awendaw seems counter-intuitive.”
He also said he’s concerned that dirt mining profits are the driving force in the design and development of what could become one of the town’s most important public gathering spots.
“Any time the answer is ‘for the money,’ there’s an issue,” he said. “Don’t be lulled by the sound of the cash register.”
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or an Twitter @dianeknich.