Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Mt. Pleasant officials face harsh criticism, infighting over Shem Creek’s future

Split decisions

Posted by Dustin Waters on Tue, Feb 9, 2016 at 10:25 AM

click to enlarge Shem Creek - FLICKR USER ISAAC WEDIN
  • Flickr user Isaac Wedin
  • Shem Creek
In many ways, Mt. Pleasant is a town divided. Caught between rapid expansion and measured growth, innovation and tradition, this rift is perhaps best exemplified by the community’s leaders.

In November, Mt. Pleasant Town Council gained four new members with the election of Bob Brimmer, Will Haynie, Jim Owens, and Joe Bustos. Backed by the support of Councilman Gary Santos and citizens hoping to hold off the tide of increased development, the new regime has made their presence known in recent days. On Friday, town council voted to task staff with investigating the cost of appraising several pieces of property along the southeast side of Shem Creek — including Red’s Ice House, Tavern and Table, and a controversial parking garage currently under development.

While the vote had many business owners crying foul out of concern the town might soon use eminent domain to seize the land, council’s decision was actually a scaled back version of the original motion from Councilman Bustos regarding plans for a public park and parking area in that location, as well as a pedestrian access point from the Shem Creek bridge to an entrance on the southeast side of Shem Creek. The motion mentioned that the park should not interfere with “currently operating businesses” and included a few possible amenities for the area, such as a “shrimp trawler sculpture,” fountain, and gift shop.

“We were to bring back all those designs ... including cost estimates to develop it, the design of the park, to build it, maintenance cost, everything associated with building a park on those properties,” says Town Administrator Eric DeMoura. “There was considerable discussion at the council level. Then council decided, ‘Let’s not vote on this motion. Let’s back it up a little bit. Let’s not do this now’ because there was considerable back and forth. What they ended up deciding was that instead of doing everything described in the motion, they would just task staff with getting an estimated cost of appraisals for those four parcels and an estimated cost to do a conceptual park design — one design on those four parcels.”

Putting things into simpler words, DeMoura summed up the situation by explaining, “It’s like saying ‘Hey, instead of going to the grocery store to buy these 10 items, just come back and tell me what they are going to cost. That’s exactly what it is. Instead of going ahead and buying them all and coming home and cooking dinner, instead just tell me what it’s going to cost to buy them.”

Council members who voted in favor of the amended motion — which was opposed by Mayor Linda Page and councilmen Elton Carrier and Mark Smith — have been adamant that the town has no intentions of claiming the parcels from property owners. On Monday, Bustos, Haynie, and Owens convened a press conference to dismiss any talk of eminent domain, but the councilmen were met with harsh words from property owners, several of whom previously spoke out during Friday’s council meeting.

“It appeared at the meeting that the property owners were there, and it appeared at the meeting that they weren’t interested in selling,” says DeMoura.

When asked how she felt about the town’s plans for the properties along Shem Creek, Dianne Crowley, co-owner of Red’s Ice House and Tavern and Table, summed up her feelings in one word: incredulous.

“I can’t imagine that they would think that they would have the right to grab these businesses, but I’m not even sure that’s their goal,” says Crowley. “I believe they’re trying to take a portion of land so that they can build some sort of walkway to the water, but even then, I don’t believe that they think they can come in and force people to sell or take their businesses. You’re looking at businesses that pay a tremendous amount of property tax, sales tax. We have at least 150 people employed full-time between the two restaurants, and we have really created a tourism center there.”

Town Council touched on the possibility of using eminent domain regarding the acquisition of property near the intersection of Coleman Boulevard and Mill Street late last year. According to the minutes from the Dec. 8 council meeting, Owens stated that the town “has the power of eminent domain, and it can use its power for the good of the town. He stated that the good of the town would be to use a portion of property that is in the Marine District, a protected district, 30-foot section, approximately 220 feet long, as a park, gathering place, or public access for the town between Shem Creek and the other side of the bridge.”

The minutes also show that Owens stated that “no one is looking to go through an eminent domain process,” but it is a “last resort.”

Earlier in the meeting, Mayor Page said that she was very concerned about Owens’ participation in any discussion on matters pertaining to the property due to his past involvement with Save Shem Creek and the organization’s active lawsuit against the town regarding the approval of the Shem Creek parking garage. Owens previously served on the board of the local nonprofit organization. While Page was unwilling to claim that a conflict of interest existed, she did consult Town Attorney David Pagliarini about possibly seeking a legal opinion from the state attorney general.

In recent months, Mt. Pleasant Town Council has often felt like two warring factions when it comes to deciding which direction the community is headed. In an effort to improve communication between town officials, council met with Ed Brenegar during a retreat in January. On his LinkedIn profile, Brenegar says he mentors “leaders and their organizations through the transition from where they’ve been to what they will be in the future. Typically this happens when an organization’s leadership recognizes that they have reached a performance plateau or are in decline, and change is necessary.” For Mt. Pleasant Town Council, this process involved a discussion of each member’s vision of the future of the town.

“It was really important to Mayor Page for council to spend some time on interpersonal-type stuff, interaction stuff, in order to be as effective as possible as the leadership body of the town,” says DeMoura. “We brought in this gentleman, Ed Brenegar, who specializes in group facilitation. He did a fantastic job, and they were able to talk through some things and get a better understanding of each other’s positions.”

This session likely couldn’t have come at a better time for the town’s leaders as tensions between members of council seemed to have reached a boiling point.

“I hope [residents] understand what is happening in this government body since November,” Councilman Carrier said during a heated exchange with newly elected council members in January. “I have never, ever in my life seen something like this. I know there are several of us here that, we’re two different groups. There’s five of you, and there are four of us. But the four of us have been here.”

He later added, “We’re fighting lawsuits and judgments and all that with some other projects that y’all want to up-end. But I’m telling you what, this town cannot afford y’all.”

After several days of heightened scrutiny following last Friday’s vote, it was time for Mayor Page’s state of the town address. During that speech, she outlined the council’s legislative priorities: infrastructure, local government revenue, and growth management. She talked about a new task force to secure attainable housing in an effort to prevent gentrification and the $3.9 million the town has set aside to go toward widening Highway 41. But in between all that, she found time to touch on the obvious divide among Mt. Pleasant’s leaders and call for some sort of reconciliation, saying, “If nothing else, I hope you take away one key point from my comments tonight and here it is: My ultimate goal for this year is for Town Council to develop a unified vision for the community and to work with one another in achieving this vision.”

While the mayor’s words come at the perfect time, they raise one question: What exactly will that vision be?

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