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Hicks: North Charleston not on Board with Plans for Ashley River Park

North Charleston may soon have a grand new park on the Ashley River, with walking and biking trails, open spaces and water access.

Or it may not.

See, for the past year there have been competing plans for the former Baker Hospital site, which sits on the riverbank just a mile south of the North Bridge. Alas, neither plan may pan out because … well, politics.

The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission recently approved a long-term lease with Sea Fox Boats as part of a $50 million deal to build a manufacturing plant and dry dock storage on part of the property … along with a 35-acre park that would include docks, kayak and canoe launches, nearly 2 miles of walking trails, picnic areas, an adventure playground, a BMX track, sports fields and an amphitheater.

Out of five proposals, that was the one PRC commissioners found most appealing. But in doing so, they turned down a similar idea from the College of Charleston and the city of North Charleston.

Which, not insignificantly, controls zoning of the site. See where this is going?

The city proposal included three soccer fields, a baseball/softball field — for both community use and intramural play — as well as walking trails tying into the Lowcountry Lowline. Plans suggest the city eventually could add facilities for the College of Charleston’s women’s NCAA beach volleyball team, as well as a ropes course, kayak launch, picnic area and fishing pier.

Most importantly, Mayor Keith Summey says, the city and college’s plan did not include a manufacturing plant in the middle of Union Heights.

“That’s just not the right plan,” Summey says. “We feel like this is an opportunity to get waterfront access to an area that needs some help. City residents don’t want to see any more industry in that area. Let ’em try to move south and put it in the city of Charleston, see how that goes.”

Yeah, North Charleston is playing rough. The city and college eventually partnered with Azalea Green — a nonprofit that had submitted a separate proposal to the park commission, and was set up by the philanthropists who donated the land to the PRC in 2014.

That didn’t move the commission, which said combining proposals wouldn’t be fair to the other applicants.

As that played out, City Council rezoned the Baker Hospital property from general business and light industrial to single-family residential against the recommendation of the city’s Planning Commission. Critics call it a “spot rezoning” ripe for litigation.

The meeting’s minutes say council decided the property would eventually be used “as community and College of Charleston practice fields.”

So, for the moment anyway, Sea Fox can’t build its manufacturing plant … or the park.

Summey says North Charleston — one of South Carolina’s premier hubs for industry and retail — most certainly isn’t anti-business. But the city opposes the PRC’s plan because residents don’t want any more industry in that area. The mayor says various interests are now lobbying City Council, and mayoral candidates, to change the zoning again come January — when he retires.

Of course, the Park and Recreation Commission is unaccustomed to such bare-knuckled local politics. Folks with the commission say Sea Fox simply offered a fully — and privately — funded development plan that costs taxpayers nothing … and includes more money for environmental clean-up needed at the site. And it has design input from Tom O’Rourke, who ran the PRC for nearly two decades.

The commission has been sitting on this strategic land — 12 miles from James Island County Park, 18 miles from Mount Pleasant’s Palmetto Islands and 17 miles from Wannamaker — for a decade. For years, it was tied up in a lease option with a sports training company that never got its funding.

Kevin Bowie, executive director of Charleston County PRC, concedes the Sea Fox proposal can’t work without a zoning change from North Charleston — but it would’ve needed one anyway, as the previous zoning didn’t allow for boat manufacturing.

“We do want to work with the city,” Bowie says. “This is just the first step, and there are partnerships that need to be defined.”

Bowie says the next step is for the public to review and possibly recommend changes before Sea Fox and the Park and Recreation Commission settle on final plans. But there’s still the not-insignificant hurdle of the zoning.

Freddy Renken, president of Sea Fox Boats, says he’s not going to let this stop plans for what he calls a “live, work, play” lifestyle. Not only would the park provide recreation for all county residents, but the plant would bring jobs to local residents.

“I can give your grandmother a job in our upholstery shop, and also give your grandchild a job welding in the aluminum shop or assembling boats in our finishing department,” Renken says. “I think this would help people in the community.”

Most folks, particularly county officials, say a park in that underserved area would be awesome. And they hope this gets settled sooner rather than later, and without a lawsuit.

If that doesn’t happen, the real losers here will be the people of Charleston County.

Source : The Post and Courier