Developer eyes public service district

The Beach Company wants to develop 2000 acres of land it owns on Johns Island that sits on the Kiawah River.

The Beach Co. likely has found a way to sidestep resistance to controversial plans to launch its high-end Kiawah River Plantation development on the southern end of Johns Island.

And all that plan likely needs to pass is the vote of one resident living on the company’s 2,000-acre property on the Kiawah River.

Some local officials and Johns Island residents have been vocal in recent months about their opposition to a public financing plan for improvements to the private development.

And conservationists have raised concerns about a proposed sewage treatment facility there that they said could spur development in the largely rural part of the island, and harm the environment if it malfunctions.

But the Beach Co. found a creative way to move forward with the proposed development of about 1,200 high-end homes, a hotel and golf course.

Chip McQueeney, a lawyer representing the company, said the Beach Co. filed paperwork Friday with the Charleston County Clerk of Court to set up its own government agency — a public service district that would provide fire protection and sewer services to the development.

Public service districts provide to residents of unincorporated parts of the county services such as sewer and fire protection, along with trash collection and disposal. And forming new ones is not common.

Few new public service districts have been launched in the state since 1973, when the Legislature gave counties more home-rule power, said Chris Smith, executive director of the S.C. Association of Special Purpose Districts.

And he’s not aware of such a district being formed by a private company, but he said he can’t be certain that has never happened in the state.

“It’s fairly unfamiliar territory.”

Charleston County has three public service districts. The St. Andrews district was launched in 1949; James Island in 1961; and North Charleston in 1972.

McQueeney said the company filed a petition signed by the landowners. It’s still in the review process, he said.

Should it pass, there will be an election, which as of now, would include only one resident.

Beach Co. President John Darby said the person who lives on the property is not employed by the company and is not a member of the family. And that person would be the one to decide if the district moves forward, providing the company’s petition is approved by the Clerk of Court.

If that happens, McQueeney said, an election eventually would be held to elect commissioners to run it.

He also said the district would include only the Kiawah River Plantation property, and no plans are in the works to expand the district or offer the services it provides to people who live outside the boundaries. Such changes also would require a complicated public election process, he said.

Darby said the development needs to provide its own fire services because the St. Johns Fire District does not have a station on site.

“They just don’t have a facility to provide fire protection long-term,” he said.

The fire district also voted in August not to participate in a financing plan known as a tax-increment financing district that would pay for improvements to the Kiawah River property.

TIFs pay for improvements to a development with future tax revenue the property will generate.

Critics of the Kiawah River plan said it would use public money to give a subsidy to a private developer. But supporters said there would be no tax revenue if the development weren’t launched.

Darby also said he thinks the public service district plan would provide better and safer sewer service. Charleston County was in the process of coming up with a plan to provide sewer service, he said. But the county has no experience in the sewer business, so it likely would work better to create a public entity from the ground up to run it.

Megan Desrosiers, assistant director of the Coastal Conservation League, is opposed to the Beach Co.’s plan.

“We need adequately capitalized and technically competent entities to take ownership of and responsibility for these types of systems,” she said.

The company has neither the financial nor technical capacity to own and operate a treatment facility, she said.

Desrosiers also said she would like to see Kiawah and Seabrook islands seriously consider stepping in to accept responsibility for the treatment facility.

“The development is in the two municipalities’ watershed, and both entities have long records of running sewer systems without incident,” she said.

County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said the Beach Co. has a right to apply for and to launch a public service district.

“We couldn’t stop it, and we couldn’t endorse it,” he said.

And county staffers still are working to develop a proposal for the TIF. He thinks that plan could benefit both the county and the Beach Co. because it would bring in a great deal of tax revenue in the future, after improvements to the property are paid for.

Darby said the company still is working on the plan, and he wants everyone involved to know it’s flexible. The company’s original proposal called for about $85 million in improvements, which would be paid for with tax revenue over 45 years.

But both the length of time and the amount could be modified, he said.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.