The Rev. Bernard Brown and his neighbors in North Charleston's Howard Heights say they've been dealt a series of bad hands by county and city officials that have anchored them in a toxic neighborhood.
Now the owners of 17 properties in the community of elderly black residents want out. And they want the county and the city of North Charleston to help by buying their property so they can move to safer, healthier surroundings.
Mayor Keith Summey said Tuesday that he plans soon to talk to City Council about purchasing current residents' homes. And he thinks he can find a buyer for the vacant properties in about a year.
It's only fair that county or city money be used to help them, the property owners said. They've been breathing smoke and ash from the county's trash incinerator, where 70 percent of the area's household waste is burned, for nearly 20 years. A heavily polluting expansion of the Port of Charleston also is in the works for their community. And with the flash of a pen and without residents' knowledge, the city opened the tiny sliver of neighborhood on the east side of Spruill Avenue to heavy industry in 2002, ensuring its demise, residents said.
"Why keep me here longer, by the incinerator, it affects our health?" Brown said. "Why not just do this for us and get us out of Dodge?"
Summey said that "the city is trying to come up with an immediate solution for the people who live there." Howard Heights "is pretty much depleted anyway," he said.
He said he hopes to talk to the neighborhood's current residents in two or three months about a plan to purchase their properties. He also said he thinks somebody is interested in buying the neighborhood's vacant land, but he isn't ready to say who that is.
Joyce Williams, who along with her siblings owns the land where her childhood home stood until the family tore it down last year, said "the neighborhood was left to rot." It was once a neighborhood where "children played outside and nobody locked their doors," she said.
Brown added that "nobody from the neighborhood is in prison and we had a preacher on every street."
But the city sacrificed Howard Heights to the State Ports Authority in 2002, Summey said.
Like cutting off a limb to save the rest of a body, the city agreed to allow the neighborhood to become an industrial buffer between the expanded port and the Union Heights neighborhood on the west side of Spruill, he said.
"There are no plans anywhere in the city's plan to see Union Heights go away," he said.
It became clear in 2002 that the port was going to expand in North Charleston and bring with it massive pollution to the Neck, North Charleston Planning Director William Gore said. The city wanted to limit the port expansion, keeping it east of Spruill, he said.
So it opened Howard Heights to heavy industry.
In a memorandum of understanding between the city and the State Ports Authority on Oct. 25, 2002, the city agreed to change the neighborhood's zoning from residential to heavy industrial.
Gore said residents initially were opposed to the change because it would make it nearly impossible to sell their homes. The city put the matter aside for a few years, then held meetings to explain it to residents, he said.
The property owners said nobody was going to buy a house at the foot of the incinerator, no matter how it was zoned. And city officials told them that land zoned for industrial use would fetch more than land zoned for residential uses.
The property owners said they were resigned to the zoning change by the time it happened in 2007. They thought it was the best deal they were going to get. But the arrangement had a big flaw, they said, because nobody is currently interested in buying their land.
Byron Miller, public relations director for the State Ports Authority, said the SPA has "no interest in purchasing the property." He doesn't know if the 2002 arrangement to change the zoning was done at the request of the city of North Charleston or the SPA. But either way, he said, "our plans for the Navy base are permitted, and we're moving on."
The property owners, who have a real estate agent representing them, have sent letters to officials in Charleston County, Charleston and North Charleston asking them to use "Greenbelt" money from the county's half-cent sales tax to purchase their land. The money is set aside to purchase land to create green space in urban areas.
Greenbelt money "isn't appropriate for industrially zoned property," Summey said.
The property owners, though sad to see their neighborhood die, said they're ready to go. They really don't care who buys the land. They just want to sell it and to make enough to relocate. Most are elderly and can't take on a mortgage.
Williams who now lives in Goose Creek, said, "I just want to see everybody made whole. Don't give us the shaft. We didn't ask for this."