Charleston County is poised to buy about 400 undeveloped acres from a private landowner who hired a former county councilman to help close the deal.
Those who voted for the Bulow Hunt Club property deal -- most on County Council -- said the land is an important acquisition that will help protect and expand park opportunities at the edge of West Ashley.
Opponents said the deal likely has merit but simply moved too fast through the county's process for divvying up greenbelt sales tax cash.
Councilman Dickie Schweers said the deal "kind of circumvented" the process, which begins with the county's Greenbelt Bank Advisory Board. That board met last week and didn't vote to recommend the Bulow sale but did recommend two others. Later the same day, a council committee considered -- and approved -- only the Bulow tract.
Advisory Board Chairwoman Louise Maybank was more direct.
"One can only assume the mortgage holder was knocking at the door to jump the tracks the way it did," she told council members after their vote Tuesday. "Please next time, take a deep breath and please let the bank board send you a recommendation -- at least to protect the integrity of the process."
The property's owner, Bill Thomas of James Island, said he had worked for several months with Edwin Cooper of Ducks Unlimited, which has a conservation easement on part of the property. Thomas said Cooper, who also has served on the county's greenbelt board, felt the property would be best in public hands.
One parcel with no conservation easement is zoned to allow about 400 homes, but this sale will ensure that doesn't happen. Thomas said he wanted to get the sale done simply because the sales price -- down sharply from the $7 million he had sought for it -- had been made public.
"Either they had to do something or I've got to do something," he said.
Thomas also hired former County Councilman and attorney Paul Thurmond to work with his attorney, Randy Cooper, on the deal. Thurmond attended council's Tuesday meeting and said later he didn't understand why the issue became contentious.
"There's a lot of great things about this," Thurmond said. "You can't put lipstick on a pig and expect to sell it as something different. This thing sold itself."
Schweers and Councilman Herbert Sass voted no. Sass called it "a good project and a good piece of property" but echoed Schweers' concerns about the speed of the vote. Councilman Henry Darby was absent.
Schweers said the bank board held off on recommending approval because "they wanted to negotiate a better deal, and I see their point."
The property had been on the market for about two years with no sale, and Schweers said there's no market for vacant residential land at the moment. "We're the only ones considering buying. Even if it were purchased by a subsequent development, there's just no market to build it out there."
Councilwoman Colleen Condon, who opposed the deal last week, said, "I'm not pleased when things get rushed through inappropriately, but I got a chance to review it and it's a good project."
Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said of the deal, "There were flaws on both sides, but I'm not going to get into that."
The county is expected to deed the property over to the county's Park and Recreation Commission, which already acquired 1,600 adjoining acres and recently spent $820,000 to acquire a large building on the property -- a residence currently used as a rental for weddings and special events. The Greenbelt Bank can only buy land, not structures.
Commission Executive Director Tom O'Rourke said he can see both sides -- those who argue it's a good deal and those worried the sale occurred too soon.
"In my opinion, I think we can solve a lot of issues if we got this property -- protection issues, urban growth boundary line issues, park issues," he said.
The county has about $20 million in rural greenbelt money left, and this sale will claim about one-fifth of that.