How much should access to a park be worth? 

Principle v. Principal

How much is 24 hour access to a small city park worth? Last week the City of Charleston announced that it would be seeking to acquire a small park in Longborough by eminent domain after a circuit court judge ruled that the park was the property of the exclusive downtown neighborhood — tonight, they will cast their eminent domain votes.

Longborough is a pricey, secluded neighborhood located near Wagner Terrace in downtown Charleston on the Ashley River. Years ago, the Beach Company developed the Longborough neighborhood on the site of the former Shoreview apartments. When it finished the development and turned over the property to the Longborough Homeowners Association, it also was supposed to transfer a small waterfront park which contained a small dock, and which neighbors and the public could use for fishing. However, when the City claimed that there was a verbal agreement with the Beach Company promising that the city would receive the park, the transfer stalled. The Longborough Homeowners Association sued to determine whether the park was rightfully theirs. The City intervened, alleging that the park should be public property and that it should be open 24 hours a day, rather than from dusk to dawn as the HOA sought. After years of legal wrangling and spending over $40,000 in legal fees, the Longborough Homeowners Association won that lawsuit, prompting the city to threaten the taking of the park by eminent domain.

As a former resident and homeowner in Longborough, I understand the reason for the dawn-to-dusk limitation. Prior to the homeowners' association limiting access to the park to daylight hours, it was not uncommon to find beer cans, condoms, syringes, or other evidence of nighttime activity at the park as the result of what one would assume is public use. Because the Longborough neighborhood is located on a closed traffic loop, restricting access to the park after dusk helped ensure that late-night activity or revelry, illicit or otherwise, would not be conducted after hours when most residents of the neighborhood and their families were trying to sleep. Limiting access to the park also reduced the likelihood that unfamiliar individuals would wander through the neighborhood during the wee hours of the morning, one of the precursors to criminal activity such as burglary or vandalism.

Although the reasons the homeowners' association sought to restrict access were legitimate, these concerns ran in contrary to Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.'s stated objective of public park access to all city residents at all times. Eminent domain is being proposed as a way around the court's ruling: if the Longborough Homeowners' Association is the rightful owner of the property, the city may use its governmental power to force the sale to the city on the public's behalf. However, taking the property by eminent domain does not mean that the city could simply get the park without compensation, however; the city would be required to pay Longborough the fair market value of the property. Recent appraisals reportedly value the small park, which little more than half an acre, at $1.5 million. The fair question then arises: Is it worth $1.5 million dollars for City of Charleston residents to have unfettered access to a small neighborhood park from the hours of 6 p.m. to 6 a.m?

It depends on whom you ask. Mediation efforts between the city and the homeowners' association has been thus far unsuccessful, with the HOA recently floating the idea of 24-hour public access in exchange for keeping the title to the park. The proposal has yet to be presented to City Council, but it appears as though council will approve the request for funding if pushed through by the mayor. If the city pays the appraised value for the property, it would be a profitable consolation prize for the roughly 40-plus households that comprise the Longborough HOA and who, in theory, would have the right to divide the proceeds from the sale, minus legal costs.

In a city where developers are gobbling up greenspace at a record pace, the preservation of open space for the public at all times is a laudable goal. However, it is questionable whether that goal warrants the expenditure of $1.5 million just to ensure dusk to dawn access.

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