Cost of proposed parks referendum rises by $8 million

Future Ashley River Park property

It’s becoming more likely that Dorchester County voters will see two questions on the ballot this November, asking them for the second time in three years if they want to fund new county parks and libraries.

At a special-called meeting Monday in St. George, County Council passed second reading of two different ordinances to pose the bond referendum questions to voters this coming Election Day. It will be the second time the so-called “quality of life” topics have reached voters.

In 2016, voters approved a $43 million referendum to fund parks and libraries, but because two topics were combined into one question, the South Carolina Supreme Court deemed the referendum illegal. The ruling was handed down in May.

Filed by a small group of taxpayers — the S.C. Public Interest Foundation and the Dorchester County Taxpayers Association Inc. — the suit reached the Supreme Court in October 2018. The suit was first filed in Circuit Court exactly two years earlier, a month before the 2016 election.

However, the proposed cost of one of the referendums has risen $8 million since council members passed first reading of the ordinances, by title only, on July 15. Initially, each ordinance proposed $30 million in bonds. But now the proposed parks and recreation referendum is at $38 million. The proposed library referendum remains at $30 million.

The 2016 referendum was going to provide only $13 million for new county parks and trail enhancements. The jump to $30 million is because more park development would be included in the new parks referendum, according to Councilman Jay Byars, one of the council’s most outspoken proponents of added outdoor recreational opportunities in the county.

Byars also explained the added $8 million is for the county to possibly buy additional waterfront acreage to add to the 83-acre Ashley River Park site.

“We are looking to buy a few hundred acres along the Ashley River to add to the park and also protect from large-scale residential development,” he said.

Byars said the vision is to possibly one day create a large-scale regional park connecting the future park with Rosebrock Park, 70 acres located on Beech Hill Road. Rosebrock Park is currently the only county-owned park.

Councilman David Chinnis agreed with Byars, calling the possible land addition a “fantastic opportunity,” especially for those he said otherwise may not be able to afford a home on the river but could frequent the park to enjoy the same nature experience. Chinnis said park planning and conservation go hand-in-hand.

“We are conserving ground…when we put parks on it,” he said. “I’m not suggesting this is a dual-purpose referendum.”

Chinnis also explained that he thinks regardless of what decision the council makes about the added land, opponents will surface.

“Opponents—they lack a vision past the next year,” he said. “They will complain about more houses going up; they will complain about property rights, and yet when somebody tries to do something about it, they’re going to complain. …This isn’t just a green spot in the middle of nowhere.”

However, some have said voter turnout will be better next year and urged the council to wait until 2020, during a Presidential Election, to put the new referendum questions on the ballot.

“Turnout is key in any election, and in an off-year election, we can only expect the lowest turnout,” said resident Steven Wright during public comment time at council’s July 15 meeting. “I believe when participation is maximized, we can have more buy-in from residents and together work to improve our quality of life in Dorchester County.”

According to Chinnis, the issue about timing of the referendums is a “tough one.” While he agreed the county would have more voters and open polling locations in 2020—and the referendums a better chance of receiving a “slam dunk” vote favoring them—this year could still witness a good turnout, especially since there are pivotal mayoral races in Summerville and North Charleston he thinks will draw voters out.

“There are a lot of people that’s going to vote in this upcoming election that want to see (these referendums) happen,” Chinnis said. “It’s not like I don’t think there’s not support for it. …If we run it this year and it comes close and fails, maybe we run it in 2020 again.”

Third and final readings of the ordinances are planned for council’s Aug. 12 meeting in St. George.

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