Mount Pleasant inched another step closer toward seizing business properties on the east side of Shem Creek on Friday, although Town Council members insisted to a large crowd of residents that they were doing nothing of the sort.
Led by recently elected council members aligned with the Save Shem Creek group, Town Council voted to have town staff investigate what it would cost to have appraisals performed on a number of business properties that are not for sale, and to have design plans created for a park on the land where those businesses now stand.
At a previous meeting, a majority of council members directed town staff to research the ownership and taxable values of those same properties. Formal appraisals would be seen as the first step in taking the properties through eminent domain, an attorney for the town said.
On Friday, Councilman Joe Bustos originally proposed having formal appraisals conducted and a park designed for those properties — with specific elements, such as a shrimp boat statue, a gift shop and restrooms — but later took a step back and called only for a “purposeful, thorough investigation” of what those things would cost.
“I’m really surprised as many people came here thinking this would be a condemnation action,” Bustos said, before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 at Town Hall.
Many in the audience addressed the Town Council before the vote, with most expressing opposition to the idea of the town taking any properties from unwilling owners. The Charleston Trident Association of Realtors also expressed opposition.
“As a resident and a business owner, I’m shocked,” said Gray Taylor, an attorney. “This council does not seem to have any interest in the business community, or frankly, in anything north of Chuck Dawley Boulevard.”
The unspoken target of the recent council action appears to be a controversial office building and parking lot under construction at Coleman Boulevard and Mill Street, which Save Shem Creek is currently trying to halt by suing the town. However, the properties listed for potential appraisal include the Red’s Ice House and Tavern and Table restaurants, the offices of Good Law Group, the former Sette restaurant, which was just sold in September, and part of a vacant lot that owner Jimmy Moore said has been in his family for 30 years.
“I want to applaud this Town Council for taking a look at what can be done there,” said Jimmy Bagwell, chairman of Save Shem Creek and a former councilman.
Several of the east Shem Creek business owners attended the meeting and urged the council not to go forward. The properties identified for possible appraisals include three of the four corners of the intersection of Coleman and Mill.
“We are absolutely opposed to our property being on this list and possibly being taken by the town,” said Summer Eudy, a partner in the Good Law Group, with offices in a former bank building at that intersection.
Bustos, Councilman Will Haynie and others insisted that the Town Council is only trying to gather information so that they can be more informed about the town’s options.
“Nowhere in this motion is ‘eminent domain’,” Haynie said.
He said expanding Shem Creek Park to the east side of the creek could help businesses there. The town spent $10 million on Shem Creek Park, on the west side of the creek, a project that at one point involved the threat of eminent domain to acquire the 1-acre OK Tire property, which the town later agreed to purchase for $6 million.
Councilman Bob Brimmer seemed satisfied with the explanation, saying, “If this motion is just about gathering information, then I’m OK with that.”
Others were not convinced. Mayor Linda Page voted against getting the cost estimates, as did council members Mark Smith and Elton Carrier.
“If any first step of any process is started today, it will not stop,” Carrier warned.
He said the Town Council has been gridlocked since the election and called Friday’s special Town Council meeting “a sad day in the history of Mount Pleasant.”
Councilman Paul Gawrych, who joined Haynie and Councilman Jim Owens in calling for the special meeting, said he wanted to help the four recently elected council members — Haynie, Owens, Bustos and Brimmer — learn the costs involved with their apparent plans. Then, Gawrych suggested, they could say they tried their best and the town could move on to other priorities such as widening S.C. Highway 41.
“They might not like the answers, but I’m going to help them get the answers,” Gawrych said.
“My support (of the motion) is not about eminent domain or any kind of taking.”
Reach David Slade at 843 937-5552 or twitter.com/DSladeNews.