Reining in the Beach Company 

Charleston should put these corporate wolves on a leash

The U.S. Supreme Court long ago ruled that corporations are people. Unfortunately, the justices have not yet discovered how to make those "people" behave like good citizens.

The Beach Company has been a part of the Charleston landscape for more than 60 years. Founded and headquartered in the Holy City, it has owned or created some of the oldest and most prestigious developments in the area. One of their properties is the 14-story Sgt. Jasper Apartments overlooking Charleston Harbor at the intersection of Broad and Barre streets.

Now the Beach Company wants to demolish the apartment tower and replace it with a monstrous new development, including 80 luxury condos, 118,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, and a parking garage to accommodate 592 vehicles.

The development is completely inappropriate to the residential neighborhood, and those neighbors have come out by the hundreds — along with preservationists and other activists — to voice their disapproval in public meetings. More importantly for the Beach Company, Charleston's Board of Architectural Review gave the project the thumbs-down and told the developer to come back with something less grandiose. The city and the Beach Company agreed to arbitration over the Sgt. Jasper project, but they could not reach an agreement. Now the Beach Company has gone nuclear, filing a suit challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance which created the BAR more than 70 years ago.

The Board of Architectural Review has been one of the most important agents in guiding the development of this historic city and in preserving its architecture and neighborhoods, its quality of life and property values. It is admired and emulated in cities around the country.

The Post and Courier, which regularly denounces government regulation and defends personal and property rights, decried the suit. "The possibility of Charleston's Board of Architectural Review being struck down is nothing short of staggering," it editorialized. "Undermining the authority of BAR would damage the city where Beach Company officials expect to continue building and investing."

This kind of belligerence in the pursuit of profit reminds me of what I witnessed in Myrtle Beach more than a decade ago. There the Burroughs & Chapin Company — the company which created Myrtle Beach — pushed around the county council and administrator, had its way with state development laws, and repeatedly convinced the county, the city, and the school district to give it funds to build the infrastructure for its new developments. It was a picture of corporate greed and ruthlessness which I documented in my 2003 book, Banana Republic.

After demonstrating that it could seemingly have its way with Horry County, Myrtle Beach and any politicians therein, B&C overplayed its hand. It went out of the county it had more or less run like a private fiefdom for a century and headed to Richland County. There it purchased 4,300 acres along the Congaree River to create its billion-dollar Green Diamond development. There was one problem: no one had ever built on this vast tract before because it was a flood plain.

A previous owner had purchased it with the intent of putting a golf course there, but he abandoned his plans when he discovered how badly it flooded. He turned around and sold it to Burroughs & Chapin, who proceeded to create a plan for thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses. But to make their dream come true, B&C would have had to convince the federal government to redraw its flood maps, Richland County to exempt it from certain ordinances, the county to assume financial responsibility for levees along the river, and local governments to grant nearly a billion dollars in infrastructure and tax incentives. This didn't happen.

Only Burroughs & Chapin knows how much money it spent over the last 16 years on lawyers, lobbyists, consultants, and media gurus, but it surely runs into many millions. Eventually, B&C took Richland County to court, demanding taxpayers reimburse it $43 million for expenses and lost profits. In August, the state Supreme Court rejected the company's plea.

Writing in The State newspaper in Columbia, Cindi Ross Scoppe said, "We can take solace in the knowledge that for once, our political leadership stood up to a deep-pocketed special interest that thought it could buy its way past any objections to its risky venture."

Our leaders have stood up to the Beach Company, and it is reasonable to assume that the state courts will tell the local developer what they told B&C. The Beach Company should learn from Burroughs & Chapin's disastrous experience and save itself a lot of money and goodwill.

Will Moredock is the author of Banana Republic Revisited: 75 Years of Madness, Mayhem and Minigolf in Myrtle Beach.

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