Courthouse Park

Courthouse Park in St. George is one of several projects in Dorchester County being delayed by a lawsuit over the 2016 quality-of-life referendum. Provided 

If Dorchester County needs a campaign slogan for its November bond referendums, it should try this: SLOW GROWTH — VOTE YES.

That ought to get everyone’s attention. It also has the added benefit of being true. This fall, the county will ask voters to once again support plans to improve libraries and parks from Summerville to St. George, just as it did in 2016.

Residents approved a similar proposal by a large margin, 61-39, but the results were tossed out by the state Supreme Court on a technicality. It’s a long story.

So County Council is trying again. This time it will ask for a total of $68 million in two separate referendum questions, as opposed to $43 million in a single vote three years ago. The library budget remains the same, but the county has added another $25 million for parks. Part of that is the rising cost of land and construction, but the county now has the option to buy hundreds more acres along the Ashley and Edisto rivers. And that’s exactly how the county should sell this. “People would rather have a park they can take their kids to and walk along the river than another 800 houses or 2,000 apartments,” County Councilman Jay Byars says.

See, the county has the opportunity to buy a couple hundred acres along the Ashley near Bacons Bridge Road, property that — if developed — could dump thousands more cars on Summerville-area roads every day. The county also has a lead on some prime real estate on the banks of the Edisto it could turn into a park. County officials believe more parks are a better option than more subdivisions. “This is a huge win for conservation,” Byars says.

That’s a winning message. Dorchester County’s population has doubled in the past three decades, and officials are still trying to catch up to the traffic. And, at least in the southern end of the county, most folks believe there’s no more room at the inn.

Taking large swaths of prime real estate off the market might seem like a no-brainer, but these referendums aren’t a lock. First, the county has opted for expediency by putting these questions to voters in an off-year election. Although Summerville, North Charleston and St. George have municipal elections, these referendums are the only reason county voters have to turn out. And turnout is often abysmal in elections when national races aren’t on the ballot.

But the county is pushing forward because council members are hearing from residents around the county that they want to vote on this — now. They say if they waited until 2020, this plan would be a lock. But they can’t wait.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” Councilman Larry Hargett says. “People are anxious to get started, and land prices go up the longer we wait.”

People are probably anxious because they approved the similar plan three years ago. But Summerville attorney (and former state senator) Mike Rose sued on behalf of the Dorchester County Taxpayers Association, arguing the county illegally combined the libraries and park questions on the 2016 ballot.

A circuit judge sided with the county, but the state Supreme Court reversed that decision in May. Hargett says bond attorneys assured county officials the structure of the 2016 referendum was correct, but an attorney general’s opinion said different. Council pushed on anyway.

Another problem for the county is there likely will be a campaign against the parks and libraries proposals. Dorchester County is famously anti-tax, and the lawsuit — while legally correct — was mostly about stopping homeowners from paying $4 or $5 a month for these improvements.

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Still, most council members are confident. “If the people show up, we win,” Byars says.

County Council still has one more vote before it can put the proposals on the ballot, but the only question is whether it will be unanimous.

“This is the biggest thing we’ve done and, bottom line, it’s going to be up to the people,” Council Chairman George Bailey says. “It’s the right thing for Dorchester County. It’s just hard to stop growth.”

He’s right, it’s nearly impossible. But this would help.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.