Tick tock: Divided County Council inching toward deadline on Pepper Hall purchase without decision

Island Packet:BY ZACH MURDOCK
May 11, 2015

The tug-of-war over whether Beaufort County should spend $11.5 million to buy the Pepper Hall property in greater Bluffton ended in another stalemate Monday night.

With the deadline to exercise its purchase option looming late next month, County Council again postponed a vote on whether to purchase 84 acres of Robert Graves’ property along U.S. 278 and the Okatie River.

The plan is the latest issue to divide the group, and more than an hour of heated debate Monday further highlighted leaders’ struggle to make sense of their economic development goals.

“Kicking this can down the road in perpetuity makes us look like idiots, and we don’t need any help there. We can do that ourselves,” chided Chairman Paul Sommerville, who opposed postponing the vote.

Now the council is asking county administrators to get more information about the property before it takes its second vote on the plan to borrow funds for the purchase at its June 8 meeting in Beaufort.

If approved then, the plan would go to a third and final vote at the council’s June 22 meeting in Beaufort — just three days before the council’s option to purchase the land expires, said Josh Gruber, deputy county administrator and county attorney.

“We’re down to the wire,” he said.

The council paid $500,000 for that 18-month option in December 2013, when the council also approved the use of $4 million in Rural and Critical Lands Program funds to preserve 18 more acres of Graves’ property along the river.

For well over a year after those purchases, however, the option sat idle.

It wasn’t until two months ago that council members formally resumed discussions about whether to buy the property and how to finance it.

After several debates within the council’s Finance Committee, county administrators drafted a plan to borrow $12 million to pay for the total purchase of the property.

Narrowly endorsed by the committee and by the full council intially, that plan has since ground to a halt. Council members have now spent nearly three hours arguing about what they want to see happen on the property, whether the price is too high and whether the council could limit development on the property without owning it.

Now, as council stares down a tight deadline, council members are asking for still more information before taking their second vote.

They want the county’s Rural and Critical Lands Program to reconsider buying and preserving another portion of the property — in addition to the piece already carved out for conservation in late 2013.

Currently home to Graves’ horse farm, most council members say the property is the last remaining untouched view along the county’s artery through Bluffton to Hilton Head Island. The Rural and Critical Lands board could be interested in buying up to a quarter of the property to preserve the view, council members said.

“What makes me sick is, a few years from now, people will go by and there’s a couple more car dealerships and people wonder, ‘How’d that happen?’ ” Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch said of allowing development there.

The council also wants administrators to hire an independent attorney to review whether the county could win a legal challenge against a council decision to limit development on the property through zoning.

The farm is currently zoned rural, but Graves has an application pending with the county to rezone the property for commercial and suburban development. The council has tabled that request while considering its purchase option, but all council members have said they would not support allowing such development on the land.

If the council does not buy the property and denies Graves commercial uses there, Graves’ attorney Jim Scheider, of Bluffton law firm Vaux and Marscher, has pledged to challenge the zoning in court.

Council members Bensch, Jerry Stewart and Stu Rodman fear the county could lose that battle, and they point to neighboring commercial development as evidence. Such a loss would not only cost the county its control over the land, but could rack up steep legal fees or penalties in the process, they argue.

Now the fate of the possible purchase is as unclear as ever, and council members have almost a month to mull the next vote.

Before Monday’s vote was postponed, though, council members appeared to be poised to vote down the purchase, with only Stewart and Rodman pledging to support the plan.

Bensch continued to speak in favor of the proposal, but she said she would abstain from voting. She added that she did not want to recuse herself entirely from the process, but that her personal ties to the property meant she would not cast a vote.

Bensch has been accused by several former council members of not appropriately disclosing that her son is married to Graves’ daughter. Bensch has argued that she received a letter from the S.C. Ethics Commission indicating her participation did not violate state ethics rules, but some current and former council members have argued it is still inappropriate.

Stewart has been accused by the same former council members of not appropriately disclosing that Graves contributed $1,000 to his re-election campaign last summer, but he has defended his right to vote on the plan and did not recuse himself or abstain Monday.

“Knowing there are at least potential conflicts of this matter paints the whole thing so badly that I really don’t want to be involved in it,” Councilman Brian Flewelling said. “I don’t want Beaufort County to be involved in it. … it would take us a long time to rebuild our reputation if we do this.”

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