MOUNT PLEASANT — The privately owned Wando shrimp dock is under contract to be sold and go public. Three-hundred yards away, the Geechie dock owners want public money to help it stay in business.
The fate of two of the last of Shem Creek's commercial shrimp boat docks hangs on the hooks along the Mount Pleasant waterfront.
The creek is a marquee destination, the place where the shrimp boat fleet is a treasured part of history and the hanging shrimp nets are what tourists and diners come to see. A pricey political tug-of-war is under way over who pays to keep them there.
The East Cooper Land Trust plans to ask the Charleston County Greenbelt Advisory Board Subcommittee for $1.3 million to shore up the deteriorating Geechie Seafood Dock. The dock sits across the water from Vickery's Bar and Grill.
The group will have to ask the money to come out of unallocated rural funds, even though it's considered an urban property. That's because the town of Mount Pleasant wouldn't sign off on the trust's request for urban money, which would have been most of the town's share of allocated Greenbelt funds.
Mount Pleasant, meanwhile, is under contract to buy the Wando dock downstream from the Geechie dock at the mouth of the creek on Charleston Harbor. The purchase would be made from local builder Brett Elrod, using different money.
The difference to town officials for their purchase plan is simple: the Wando dock would be public while the Geechie dock would remain private.
"There are a lot of things being discussed by the town for the use of greenbelt funds that are exciting," said Councilman Tom O'Rourke, who is heading up the Wando dock effort. "We didn't think (the Geechie dock) was a good fit at this time."
That's not good enough for Elizabeth Moffly, who owns the Geechie dock with her husband, David Moffly. They want to be considered, too.
"They're buying the Wando dock. We've done everything they asked for except they don't want to give up the money," Elizabeth Moffly said, referring to the required disclosures and paperwork to apply for the funds.
The couple just put $300,000 into the dock to repair where it's fallen in, Elizabeth Moffly said. They need to raise the entire dock structure, which holds the Geechie seafood shop. They charge the shrimpers a dockage fee but it's not enough to make a profit, she said.
"It was for their (shrimpers') benefit" the dock was raised, she said. "The reason the tourists come down to Shem Creek is to look at the shrimp boats," she said. "It's cultural heritage."
Catherine Main, the East Cooper trust director, told Town Council in March the Geechie dock owners planned to bring on two ecotour boats, as well as shrimp boats. A tour boat would pay $2,000 dockage for every $500 a shrimp boats does. The owner needs to make money while preserving the seafood industry, Main said.
The 1-acre Wando dock lot and its 350 feet of dock space would provide the town with revenue from leases, as well as be an investment in the future, O'Rourke said.
The town plans to continue leasing to Tarvin Seafood, a business that includes shrimping, and also is looking at leasing to an ice vendor to replace a closed down vendor that supplied shrimpers the ice they need, he said.
"I think we should try to help everybody as much as we can," O'Rourke said. But "with land increasing in value by the minute, the Wando dock would be an asset the town could sell if the seafood businesses go somewhere else."
With negotiations under way, the town would not disclose the price being discussed. But O'Rourke said less would be paid than Elrod originally asked. Charleston County values the property at $1.1 million for tax purposes, but the market value might be far more.
"We can't pay more than what the land is worth," he said. "We're paying based on the land value."
Commercial fishing docks are disappearing across the state because of development pressures on the lucrative waterfront properties. Shem Creek has become a mix of upscale residences, waterfront restaurants and water sports businesses, edging out the shrimp boats.
Yet, untangling public from private interests is becoming more complicated for preservation efforts as property values rise, particularly along the crowding coastal waterfront.
The East Cooper trust approached the town about financing for both the Geechie and Wando docks. Catherine Main, the trust director, said she considers the businesses, which represent one of the town's earliest industries, important to heritage landscape conservation.
"They are a resources that benefit the entire community. Shem Creek fishing boats are providing industry so we have access to our local seafood," she said.
If funding is approved for the Geechie dock, some development restrictions would be placed on the property, Main told Town Council in March. But the dock business would continue. Except for the dock and an access levee, the 1.4-acre lot is marsh.
'Not a suggestion'
Greenbelt money — raised from sales tax — has been used to protect other commercial properties, mostly farm and timberland. But there's always been a conflict in the program between two competing goals – trying to protect as much land as possible from development versus acquiring land that the public can use and enjoy.
There is precedent for an "urban fund" property to be considered for rural funding by the Greenbelt board. In 2014, an allocation from the rural funds helped Lowcountry Land Trust buy land alongside the massive Angel Oak on Johns Island, even though it was inside the urban boundary.
Charleston County Council approved the allocation partly because it helped protect a beloved natural feature just outside the boundary.
But the council minutes noted, "the council does not intend this action to serve as a suggestion that its general policy to allow the use of rural area Greenbelt funds for purchases inside the county's urban/suburban boundary."
The Greenbelt subcommittee meets Wednesday to discuss rural funding applications.
David Slade contributed to this story.