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Editorial: Engage Johns Islanders to show them a new town is unnecessary

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Angel Oak

The Angel Oak tree is a main symbol on Johns Island and is a city of Charleston park. Island residents outside the city are looking at the idea of creating a new town there. File/Michael Ver Sprill/Dreamstime.

It may not be possible to draw a line around unincorporated Johns Island that would encircle enough people to form a new town, but those interested in the idea hope to have an answer in a few weeks.

But even the most optimistic among them realize that incorporating part of South Carolina’s largest island is not going to be easy or quick. Nor should it be.

While we agree with the notion that local government is the most responsive, we doubt the wisdom behind forming cities based more on frustration with, or fear of, surrounding governments than on a desire to provide more city services. Such decisions leave an impractical, lasting governmental footprint long after today’s elected officials — whose actions or inaction created that frustration and fear — have left the scene.

One of the Johns Island incorporation organizers, Thomas Legare of Legare Farms, said interest in a new town stems in part from a weariness of dealing with Charleston County, the city of Charleston and even the state.

The 8-year-old town of James Island is serving as sort of a precedent. Both James and Johns islands are big Sea Islands that have seen significant suburban growth and also extensive annexation by Charleston. Both seek a balance between serving their more developed areas and preserving some of their rural and historic character.

While some consider James Island a “paper town” that doesn’t do much (aside from preventing Charleston from annexing still more of it), others disagree, including James Island Mayor Pro Tem Garrett Milliken, whose op-ed appears on this page.

Although Mr. Milliken cites several examples of how the town has made part of James Island more livable, there’s no question that other local governments, specifically the James Island Public Service District with its garbage collection, fire protection and sewer service, are doing most of the heavy lifting. The PSD’s $8.4 million budget is twice the town’s ($3.5 million).

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State law unfortunately favors the formation of paper towns, which automatically get a cut of local sales tax collections, franchise fees and state aid, regardless of their services or other tax rates. In James Island’s case, the town gets a lot of free pie while the Public Service District Commission must face most of the politically difficult decisions as to how much to tax residents. These state laws should be changed.

Johns Islanders aren’t looking for new services as much as improvements in their current level of law enforcement, garbage collection and planning, all of which are provided by the county or (with garbage collection) a private contractor, according to Mr. Legare.

Jeff Shacker of the Municipal Association of South Carolina has helped residents interested in forming a new municipality. He notes that a proposed town must have at least 7,000 residents and a density of at least 300 residents per square mile if it wants to incorporate without first asking a nearby municipality to annex the area.

The 2010 census says Johns Island had 15,181 residents, with 5,266 in the city, so any effort might have to wait. The 2020 census numbers, expected next year, will confirm a larger unincorporated population, which in turn will make it easier to draw a contiguous shape that includes 7,000 residents. (Getting enough residents in a contiguous area is the legal issue that thwarted James Island’s incorporation for decades.)

“We may have to wait until a new census comes out. We’re patient,” Mr. Legare said. “And we may not be able to do it, but at least we’ve got people’s attention.”

That’s a good point, and those in the city and county of Charleston should take note and use this time to engage Johns Islanders anew about improving things. For those who think yet another town is an unwise move, the best way to fight might be in the court of public opinion rather than in a court of law.

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