FEATURE ‌ New Town, Old Story 

James Island revs up for a referendum hat trick

June 20 will decide the fate of the "township" of James Island — again. Incorporation of the island has been voted on twice before, in 1992 and again in 2002. After the 1992 referendum the City of Charleston sued James Island for illegal incorporation of land over waterways and marshland already claimed by the city. The Supreme Court agreed with Charleston's complaint and disbanded the town.

click to enlarge Carl McGartlin says just vote 'no' to keep the status quo
  • Carl McGartlin says just vote 'no' to keep the status quo

Shortly after the first court decision, Sen. Glenn McConnell pushed through legislation which allows the brackish territories to be shared by two municipalities, prompting a second go at James Island town formation. The patchwork municipality was again struck down by the state's high court for its lack of continuity.

Now, with the odds stacked against them, James Island freedom fighters are convinced the third time is the charm.

Nothing and everything has changed in the 14 years since the original referendum was voted on. Mary Clark — diehard James Island sovereignty crusader — is still spearheading the move toward independence. In 2001, Clark told the City Paper, "The City wants the additional revenue to support their spending. They need property taxes from us, and the fees and sales taxes, and they also need the borrowing power that they get from our property."

Her theories haven't changed since then and are unlikely to — ever. "If I die before I get my town, they need to tie me up in the bed of a pickup and drive me around so that I can say goodbye to James Island," said Clark.

Another rock of ages, the proposal for the town, includes plans for a $1 million budget and three employees — just like it did in 1992. Joe Riley — who is still characterized as the villainous mayor of the annex-hungry, litigious City of Charleston — calls the proposal "patently absurd" and says that the fiscal distress created by a newly formed town planning to run on such a budget would have a "negative impact on our entire region."

Patterson Smith completes the decade-old cast of characters by representing those on the Island who oppose efforts to incorporate. Smith started an anti-incorporation campaign prior to the 2002 vote because he felt that Mary Clark was leading James Island down a "primrose path."

So, what has changed? James Island itself. The popularity of South Carolina's "smiling faces and beautiful places" has made its population one of the fastest growing in the United States. Urban sprawl has its hooks firmly planted in the formerly rural James Island community. Providing city services — police, fire, parks and recreation, development assistance, and adequate political representation — may prove too big a task for the proposed "Town of James Island." Consideration of these factors has resulted in a groundswell of support for Patterson Smith and others who believe that the status quo ain't bad and the City of Charleston might not be so horrible either.

click to enlarge Mary Clark and Kathleen Wilson: whose side are you on?
  • Mary Clark and Kathleen Wilson: whose side are you on?

Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson — resident of James Island — launched a direct mail campaign encouraging residents in unincorporated areas to annex their properties to Charleston. The letter campaign was in response to another piece of legislation introduced by Sen. McConnell that removed the requirement for newly formed towns to provide minimum levels of police protection.

"The time has come and passed for a town of James Island," said Wilson at a City of Charleston press conference held to discuss the June 20 referendum. "We need to remove emotion from our decision making. If this is done it cannot be undone."

Those feeling ambivalent about the status of James Island incorporation have found a voice in Carl McGartlin, who, with a group of his neighbors, has formed the No New Town Task Force.

"The whole idea of the Task Force initially was just to bring the issue to the forefront and to bring people out to vote. In the last referendum, out of the over 19,000 eligible voters, only 4,900 people showed up. That is how the town won. We aren't taking a side with the city or with the town. We just want to get information out so people know to go and vote," says McGartlin.

Contrary to what you may have heard, it is not an all-or-nothing situation over on James Island. This is the message McGartlin wants more people to hear. James Island residents have the option to annex, or stay as they are — unattached to any municipal government. Residents also have the option of voting for annexation.

The incorporated town would include approximately 20,000 residents, and 9,100 property parcels. If you would like to know if you are eligible to vote June 20, call the City of Charleston's planning office at 720-1980 and provide them with your address. They will tell you whether should show up at the polls on June 20.

The city has promised to present the information without their two cents thrown in.

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