ST. GEORGE -- Three times since the 1990s, referendums for parks or recreation in Dorchester County have gone down in flames at the ballot box or gone up in the heat of politics.
The fourth try is starting to smoke.
A proposed voter referendum on a $5 million bond issue for new parks and conserved lands will go to public hearing in May before Dorchester County Council takes a final vote on whether to put it on the November ballot.
The hearing isn't required, but some council members said they're getting opposition from residents. Councilman Chris Murphy called for the hearing this week, after saying he had received a number of calls from residents in his district.
He is not opposed to parks, Murphy said, but there is concern that voter approval of the bond would obligate council to create a parks and recreation department "and expand Dorchester County government bureaucracy."
"What are we putting in front of the people? People are asking that question, and I can't give them an answer," Councilman Bill Hearn said.
Councilmen Richard Rosebrock and Larry Hargett said resident surveys indicate strong support for parks, and the November ballot is the opportunity for the county as a whole to decide.
"It's been discussed fully," Hargett said. Two of every three people he has talked to in his district support it, he said, and he was elected because people wanted a park. "What you're advocating is, don't let them vote."
Dorchester County currently has 130,000 people but no real county-operated park. A county park has been proposed at Bacons Bridge in Summerville.
Leaders tried for more than 20 years to set up some sort of organized parks or recreation program but couldn't find the money to do it. Twice in the 1990s voters shot down referendums. A third try was sidetracked into a vote for a smaller amount of money to build senior centers.
The new referendum would provide money to buy land for parks and conserve open spaces. It follows the approval of a parks and recreation master plan that was compiled using results from surveys that asked residents what they wanted, and a Trust for Public Land study that concluded two-thirds of the county supported setting aside land for those uses.
So far the county hasn't publicized any detailed plan for what would be done with the money.
Council Chairman Jamie Feltner said deciding details of the plan before council votes whether it wants a bond is putting the cart before the horse, and that more details would be worked by council and made available to residents after the council vote.
"I don't want to spend staff man-hours to look into details until we know whether we're going to do it," he said.
Council members agreed to hold a hearing before taking a final vote on the referendum May 17. Meanwhile, council approved the second of three votes on the issue, 5-2. Murphy and Hearn voted against.