On Oct. 12, the Beach Company filed paperwork that could set in motion a process that could allow the company to obtain the blessing they need to proceed with a 2,000-acre Johns Island development that's been in the works since 2009.
The Beach Company, the real estate and development company that's had its hand in dozens of Lowcountry development projects over the past few decades, including Kiawah Island, applied to form its own public service district to provide fire and sewer service to its proposed Kiawah River Plantation development on the southern end of Johns Island that would include more than 1,200 homes, a 450-room hotel, retail space, and recreational facilities like a golf course. The move would create the county's first public service district in 40 years, since North Charleston formed its PSD in 1972, making it uncharted territory for many local oversight agencies who haven't seen a request like this since the 1980s.
A public service district, or PSD, is an agency that provides local essential services like sewer, water, trash, public safety, and other services, usually to unincorporated areas. Charleston County has three PSDs: North Charleston, James Island, and St. Andrews, which serves unincorporated West Ashley. The only special service district serving the Kiawah River Plantation area, St. John’s Fire District, voted over the summer against adding the proposed area to its service district.
Jake Libaire of the Coastal Conservation League, which worked with the Beach Company to craft initial plans for the community, said they are not so much concerned with the plans for development, which he said were better than most their size, as they are with how the new PSD plans to provide the infrastructure for essential services like sewage treatment, which are normally operated by public governmental entities. “We’re not so sure how much different this is than a homeowners association managing sewage treatment,” he said, emphasizing that the state and local councils of governments have been trying to get away from similar arrangements. Similar attempts to build out sewer infrastructure in Awendaw in 2008 proved unsuccessful.
If approved by the Charleston County Clerk of Court, there would be an election to choose commissioners to administer the district. It would be conducted in the same fashion commissioners are elected in other districts, with area residents going to the polls to cast their votes. But in this case, just one person lives on the Beach Company-owned land, though that person is not affiliated with the company, Beach officials say.
Before submitting its petition last week, the company had tried unsuccessfully for months to bring Charleston County Council on board with a plan for the county to provide $85 million in upfront improvements and services to the development through a tax increment financing district (TIF), which would pledge 45 years of future tax revenue from the subdivision to repay the public's initial investments. The CCL and others have voiced their opposition to the TIF, saying the district would provide a taxpayer subsidy to a private developer, who would be under no obligation to repay the money since revenues would come from future property tax dollars generated by the development. Supporters of the plan say there would be no tax revenue or other economic impact without the development in the first place. Libaire says the League wasn’t aware of plans for the TIF when they agreed to help develop the initial master plan.
County Councilman Joe Qualey ruffled some feathers over the summer when he publicly pushed for a council committee to hold off on putting together plans for the TIF, sparking a war of words with Beach Company President John Darby. But without support from councilmembers to abandon the process, County Administrator Kurt Taylor said plans are still in the works and will be presented to council when it’s ready. Taylor says if both the TIF and the PSD are approved, they could prove to be complementary. Though he says he is not involved in the decision making process, his staff is continuing to craft its TIF proposal with assurances that should the Beach PSD be formed, it will be adequately outfitted to provide critical services to the new development.
Though the Beach Company says it is pursuing the PSD in conjunction with the TIF, it’s not yet clear how the process will move forward at this point with two plans on the table. Approval of the TIF will need the OK from both county council as well as the Charleston County School District, since about $63 million of the $84.5 million collected in the terms of the TIF would have gone to public schools. For its part, the Beach Company has pledged to pay the costs of any Kiawah River Plantation students attending public schools, though that number would likely be small since an estimated 10 percent of homeowners in the resort community would be full-time residents.