Crowfield Little League fights to stay alive, again

Crowfield Little League plays at the Steve Vaughn Sports Complex on College Park Road.

Hundreds of kids will sign up this weekend and next to play baseball this year in the Crowfield Little League, which since 1994 has made its home on modest ballfields located just off College Park Road in Berkeley County.

But by summer’s end, some of those kids might not have a place to play.

“It breaks my heart,” says the league’s incoming president, Justin McCauley. “For five years, we’ve been saying that if things don’t change, we’re going to be out on the street. And now we are at that point.”

Crowfield Little League’s annual battle to stay afloat is an on-going one; The Post and Courier wrote about its tax dispute with Berkeley County in 2010. But according to McCauley, the league — a nonprofit organization that is home to as many as 600 players during its spring season — is reaching a breaking point.

Crowfield Little League owes a two-year property tax bill of about $7,200, McCauley says. The first payment is due Feb. 9, and McCauley thinks the league can cover that payment after collecting its registration fees over the next two weekends. But the balance of the tax bill will be due by June, and that will be much tougher to make, he said.

As of Friday, a gofundme.com account (www.gofundme.com/crowfieldcobras) set up to help Crowfield Little League had collected $70, far short of its goal of $5,000.

“We’re trying our hardest to keep this thing alive,” said McCauley, who is 31 and played at Crowfield Little League, as his son and daughter do now. “We care about these kids, and there are some of these 600 kids who would have nowhere to go if we shut down.”

Crowfield Little League is in an unincorporated area near Goose Creek, serving children ages 4-16, some of whom could not afford or would not be eligible to play in the Goose Creek Recreation Department leagues or other public rec leagues. It’s an important part of the baseball culture in an area that’s produced current Major Leaguers Matt Wieters and Justin Smoak, who starred in the proud baseball program at nearby Stratford High School.

“We’ve had a bunch of kids come through Crowfield,” said Stratford athletic director John Chalus, formerly the school’s baseball coach. “It’s a tremendous benefit to us. And anytime you have something that’s going to benefit kids, get them out playing and off the streets, you need to keep that around.

“A lot of times you get into situations with travel ball teams and things like that, and some kids don’t have the money for that. Playing at a place like Crowfield is cheaper for them, and that’s what their parents can afford.”

Crowfield Little League’s history at its current site dates back to 1994, when local builder Steve Vaughn allowed the league, which had lost its field, to use land he owns off College Park Road. He asked the league to pay the property taxes, which at that time came to about $350 per year.

But in 2002, Berkeley County reassessed the land, changing its status from agricultural to commercial use — even though, as Vaughn points out, the use of the land has not changed since 1994. That sent the league’s tax bill soaring some 1,370 percent over a two-year period, to $5,146. According to Berkeley County records, Crowfield Little League has paid almost $40,000 in property taxes since 2007.

League officials have approached the county in the past about the tax situation, but Berkeley County officials have insisted that their hands are tied. The land is privately owned, and Crowfield Little League uses it through a lease agreement. That is commercial use, the county has said.

“Since the team has a month to month lease, the assessment of the property’s value must be based on the highest and best use of the property as of the year of value,” Berkeley County spokesperson Michael Mule` said. “If the team had a long-term lease, then the property may be considered encumbered and could impact the assessment value accordingly.”

That’s hard for some people to swallow, especially after recent news about the Charleston Battery soccer team receiving a $65,000 per-year tax break from Berkeley County, and the South Carolina Stingrays hockey team getting up to $500,000 from the City of North Charleston over the next two years.

“They can do it,” Vaughn said of Berkeley County. “They just don’t want to.”

Meanwhile, McCauley and his fellow parents work to keep the league alive. In 2010, a benefit motorcycle ride and some timely sponsorships helped Crowfield Little League pay a $5,800 tax bill to keep the league going.

But that tax money could go to other uses. Only one of the complex’s five fields has lights, and there are just two portable bathrooms and no running water. Sagging fences were taken from the Navy Base years ago, the fields need new clay, and some gravel for the muddy driveway would help. Little League rules allow the players themselves to hold only one fundraiser per year, McCauley said.

“There are a lot of things we could use that money for,” McCauley said. “But the way things are, it’s money we just don’t have. We all joke that if we won the lottery, we’d come out here and really fix this place up the way these kids deserve.”