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Editorial: Act sooner rather than later on possible Charleston parks referendum

Hampton Park Downed Tree.JPG (copy)

Jeff Montgomery and his son James, 13, check out a tree that fell across the road at Hampton Park in Charleston on Friday, September 30, 2022. Henry Taylor/Staff

If Charleston City Council wants to seek voters' blessing on a major expansion of the city's park system, then council members should act with urgency to pin down the particulars so voters have ample time to learn and think about the issue before casting their ballots this fall.

As The Post and Courier's Emma Whalen reported, City Council is considering whether to proceed with a bond referendum that would be on the Nov. 7 ballot along with the mayoral race and some council contests, but many of the important specifics — including the size of the potential borrowing, the amount of any property tax hike and a list of projects and their order of priority — remain unsettled. The city has agreed to work with a nonprofit advocacy group, The Trust for Public Land, on the next steps. 

The move comes after a master plan unveiled in 2021 detailed major needs across the city's park system, including about $130 million for new parks and facilities and another $90 million for maintenance and improvements. The study also found strong support among voters for a bond referendum (with 43% saying they strongly supported the idea). City Council declined to pursue a park bond vote two years ago, a smart move because of lingering uncertainty due to the pandemic and because turnout would have been lower that year with no mayoral race on the ballot.

As we noted then, the idea of a Charleston park bond is appealing in part because of its potential to do more than establish additional parks. Creating new parks and altering existing ones also has the promise of holding rainwater or directing it to a better place. The master plan also recognizes that this work can help the city address its No. 1 challenge — reducing flooding — and we would urge council members to show preference for projects that do that if they proceed with a referendum. Multipurpose infrastructure — city features that can be places to play and improve drainage — is a key concept from the city's Dutch Dialogues.

Although the city has until August to finalize its decision, council members need to make up their minds long before then. If they wait until the last minute to provide the details, voters should reject the whole thing.

This discussion comes shortly after voters in the town of Mount Pleasant approved a $50 million park bond issue that primarily is going to help the town develop its major park site along Rifle Range Road. One reason we believe that referendum succeeded — despite Mayor Will Haynie's concerns about the cost and timing, concerns that we shared — was that it specified the five projects the town would pursue, in order, until the funds ran out.

Some officials see referendums as a way to give themselves political cover by conducting a sort of public opinion poll in lieu of making a difficult decision inside council chambers, but that is never a legitimate reason to put a question on a ballot. The only legitimate reason is when the law requires it, as it does when a city wants to borrow money in a way that prevents it from being counted toward the city's maximum borrowing capacity set by state law; cities always should have some room under their state-set caps in case they face an emergency.

We see plenty of room for significant improvements to Charleston's park network that could be made if voters agree to a reasonable property tax increase to make them happen, from the emerging Lowcountry Lowline and other connective trails to the gathering and landscape spaces envisioned as part of the city's planned Sumar Street redevelopment to new, strategically located parks that double as drainage basins. Still, it will take time and thought to come up with a list of projects that address the city's greatest needs. Not everything will make the cut.

So the sooner those discussions begin, the better. If there is to be a referendum, voters not only need to know what specifics are involved, but they also deserve some time to think about it.

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