A Square Peg for a Round Hole

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“My desire is to allow the people that were formerly in the Town of James Island to be able to be annex into the Town. How do you do that without contiguity? That’s what this bill addresses.”
— Paul Thurmond, S.C. State Senator

“When I prepared the early drafts, I had assumed that the JIPSD Commissioners would be unanimously in favor.”
— Mayor Bill Woolsey, Town of James Island

“This bill opens the door to municipalities like the City of Charleston to oppose this vigorously.”
– Rod Welch, JIPSD Commissioner

“I think the Mayor’s reasons for pushing this are pure and simple … personal gain.”
— Trent Kernodle, JIPSD attorney

“We’re busy saying ‘what has been done to us?’ when we should be saying, ‘what can we do for the citizens.’”
— Carter McMillan, JIPSD Commissioner

A little over a month ago, just before the South Carolina State House shuttered its doors for their annual summer break, a seed of hope was sewn for the Town of James Island in its fight to regain some of the residents lost when the City of Charleston’s third successful lawsuit dissolved the former Town on June 20, 2011.

On May 23 of this year, James Island-based House Rep. Peter McCoy, along with his counterpart in the State Senate, fellow James Islander Sen. Paul Thurmond, submitted concurrent bills to their respective legislative bodies that, if passed by both the House and the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley next year, could potentially clear a path for about a third of the Town’s former residents, nearly 6,000 people, to rejoin the municipality.

The bills could provide municipalities an additional avenue to annex properties in addition to the current standard of contiguity (properties adjacent to one another). If a majority of the registered voters of a special district — like the James Island Public Service District (JIPSD) —are also residents of a municipality (as is the case with the JIPSD and the Town), the special district “may petition the municipality by resolution to annex the remaining unincorporated portion of the district.”

To the great shock of James Island Mayor Bill Woolsey, not everybody was thrilled about the potential change to the state’s annexation laws.

At the June 10 meeting of the JIPSD, several members of the body’s governing Commission raised concerns about the bills and their potential effect on servicing James Island.

“When I prepared the early drafts, I had assumed that the JIPSD Commissioners would be unanimously in favor,” said Woolsey in a recent interview with JIM.

JIPSD Commissioner Rod Welch says he’s concerned the efforts of Woolsey, McCoy, and Thurmond to change annexation laws could undermine the role of the JIPSD, and ultimately hurt the citizenry of James Island.

“This bill opens the door to municipalities like the City of Charleston to oppose this vigorously,” said Welch, who also served on the very first James Island Town Council in 1993. There seems to be some concern among Welch and others that if the town was to regain 6,000 people it could potentially take over services currently provided by the JIPSD, which has been in place since 1961.

The disagreement seems to be widening a rift between the mayor and the JIPSD which first came to the forefront in April when the JIPSD voted to increase the millage rate by two points. This did not sit well with Woolsey, who feared a rate increase of any kind would push people to the City of Charleston and away from the town.

“People who are not in the Town now, customers of the JIPSD who live in unincorporated Charleston County, will be affected by this tax increase … that’s going to resonate with them … This is a lot of what I think about and worry about each and every day,” said Woolsey.

“I was concerned about the tax increase because (City of Charleston) Mayor (Joe) Riley says ‘the Town and the JIPSD are going to both be financial flops, forcing both organizations to raise taxes on their clientele.’ And when the JIPSD goes ahead and does that, it seems to be proving them right,” said Woolsey.

JIPSD’s attorney Trent Kernodle has a unique take on the issue, and himself is a unique figure in the annexation debate. As an outside attorney who formerly worked for the Town, Kernodle was the lynchpin in the movement to modify the state’s annexation laws to provide for the legal incorporation of the Town, a decades-long struggle that finally bore fruit last April when the Town gained permanency.

Yet since he’s left the Town, citing differences of opinion with Woolsey on the Town’s direction, Kernodle has taken issue with the new bills, going so far as to say in a recent interview with JIM: “I think the Mayor’s reasons for pushing this are pure and simple … personal gain,”

Commissioner Carter McMillan, who like Welch, previously served on James Island Town Council, had a different take. “The goal all along has been to put the Town back together … and for someone to conclude that Peter (McCoy) Paul (Thurmond), and Bill (Woolsey) are up to something … that’s not what they’re working to do,” said McMillian. “I’ve never heard anyone say ‘this is about doing something to the JIPSD’ … it’s about the citizens. We’re busy saying ‘what has been done to us?’ when we should be saying, ‘what can we do for the citizens.’”

The predominant neighborhoods that could be affected by the bills are currently a part of unincorporated Charleston County, most of whom were formerly residents of the Town whose properties were deemed ineligible to be a part of what is now the Town of James Island for lack of contiguity. The Riverland Terrace, Woodland Shores, Azalea Park, Laurel Park, Central Park Road, Quail Run, Secessionville, Grimball Road, Riverfront, Sol Legare Island, Battery Island, and Oak Island neighborhoods are amongst those Woolsey hopes to annex into the Town.

The respective bills create a new path toward annexation, with the goal of annexing people en masse, as opposed to on a piecemeal, house-by-house basis. The bills seek to amend the “procedure for annexation of special purpose districts (like the JIPSD), so as to provide an additional method by resolution of a special purpose district when a preexisting municipality annexes a majority of the population of the district or when a municipality incorporates a majority of the population of a district.”

For Thurmond, the key remains reuniting the Town.

“My desire is to allow the people that were formerly in the Town of James Island to be able to be annex into the Town. How do you do that without contiguity? That’s what this bill addresses,” says Thurmond, who as the head of the State Senate Judiciary Committee, will chair the sub-committee that next vets the bill on the Senate side.

The rub is how to provide for the Town’s reunification without creating a bill that acts as a loophole in regards to other municipalities throughout the region and the state.

“We on Judiciary have to come to a resolution that would address our issue but hopefully be used in a very limited way throughout the state … one that would not ultimately create more challenges for other areas,” said Thurmond. “This is not a perfect bill, I’d be arrogant to say that. We get a perfect bill through the process, arguing about it on the floor. A bill is perfect one this gets passed.

“That’s where the ‘square peg in a round hole’ analogy comes in … you want to fix the, problem, you want to give people in the community who want to be a part of James Island a chance to do so, but  without opening Pandora’s Box and creating significant trouble throughout the state for other municipalities.”

 

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