Dorchester County bids $2.75M for green space

SUMMERVILLE -- Pine Trace is 330 acres of woods and wetlands surrounded by rings on rings of housing subdivisions in the booming Oakbrook community.

Despite its money woes, Dorchester County Council this week took a stab at keeping it that way -- making a $2.75 million bid to the S.C. Budget and Control Board for the property, which is part of the state's Coastal Rehabilitation Center on Miles Jamison Road.

The property is one of the last large open tracts in the densely populated area around Summerville, where residents have clamored for more open space and recreation facilities. It has been a flashpoint for growth-control controversies since 1987.

The purchase would create new dilemmas. The plan is to develop a passive park and sports-field complex and for Dorchester District 2 to build a new school on a small portion of the property.

How County Council would come up with the money leaves some members uneasy. The details have not been worked out, but they could involve selling some Pine Trace acres to private developers and selling county-owned property along Sawmill Branch Canal for another school. It also would use bond money that is restricted to paying for open land and parks.

"Clearly, for me it's an ethical issue," Councilman David Chinnis said.

Meanwhile, council is scraping the bottom of its revenue barrel, looking at another round of equipment, service and potentially staff cuts as it stares down impending state cuts to its already constricted budget. It has to find some $20 million or more to expand or rebuild its detention center.

County officials think they can make the buy without raising taxes. They plan to use cable-franchise money that is designated for recreation. They also have a little dollar room under a state-mandated ceiling for issuing bonds that might also come into play. Yet the financial situation leaves the county "treading on thin ice. I want to see what's going to happen," said Councilman Richard Rosebrock, a lone abstention in the unanimous vote.

"I was very concerned about the overall (financial) situation. No question about it," Councilman George Bailey said about his part in the deliberations. "But I think (buying the property) is good for the county."

Nobody is sure the bid will fly. Last year, the property as a whole appraised at $3.25 million when District 2 sought to buy acres for a new school. In 2007, at the height of the building boom, a developer contracted to pay $7.6 million for it, planning to build a 900-home subdivision. But the developer left the state in the lurch by failing to pay after the boom collapsed.

The chance was simply too good to pass up, council members said. State officials gave the county and school district a 90-day window to make an offer. The window was about to close.

"How often do you get 330 acres in the middle of town? This will never happen again. We would be crazy not to think about the future, be bold and go for it," said Councilman Jay Byars, who has pushed the idea.

"We know the state would prefer to sell it to a public entity," Chairman Larry Hargett said. "It's a good time to be buying land (with development slowed down). We believe this is a golden opportunity."

In 2007, when Summerville approved the 900-home subdivision after annexing the acres, the decision goaded a fight over whether new tax revenue from development could pay for the roads and schools needed to serve it. It created rifts among resident groups and elected officials that still separate them.

The county's park plan would mean reworking zoning the town has in place for the property, a move that would take Summerville Town Council approval.

Town Councilman Bob Jackson, who fought to set aside open space on the property, welcomed the county move.

"Development is starting up," he said. "I think the investment is going to save taxpayers money in the long run."

Not everybody likes the idea of spending money on park space in a time of other critical needs. Bruce Bates, a Dorchester County resident, opposed it in public comments before council approved the offer, "particularly with the potential tax increase (to pay for jail expansion) looming," he said

Byars said later the parkland would be paid for from "a different pot of money, a different revenue stream that's already allocated for this." A public-private partnership would be developed to run it, he said.