Bill would let town create tax district for Sea Pines to pay for dredging waterways

April 22, 2011 

Rodger Giles of Augusta, Ga., looks down at the water from the deck of his 58-foot Hatteras "Corporate Office" Tuesday afternoon during low tide at the Harbour Town Yacht Basin in Sea Pines. "We can't turn on the air conditioning during low tide, it sucks up the mud," Giles said.

SARAH WELLIVER, THE ISLAND PACKET

A two-word change to a South Carolina law would help Sea Pines officials create a special tax district to pay for dredging of the community's waterways.

By pasting "or waterways" into an existing state law, state Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head, seeks to amend the way municipal improvement districts can be used.

Currently, state law allows special tax districts to pay for dredging and widening of canals through a special property assessment. Patrick's amendment would broaden that to all waterways, including creeks and marinas.

"Government is responsible for infrastructure. The waterways of Hilton Head Island are part of the island's infrastructure," Patrick said Tuesday of tax dollars being used for dredging. "It's like paying for roads."

He said he would also like to see island dredging become a "coordinated, regulated effort" by the town "rather than a private entity."

If approved, the bill would allow municipal councils to levy a special assessment on properties within the special tax district without owner consent, similar to current legislation for dredging and widening canals.

The bill passed the S.C. House 89-0 April 13 and was referred to a Senate judiciary committee of which Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, is a member. Attempts earlier this week to reach Davis for comment were unsuccessful.

Patrick said he authored the legislation after speaking with officials from the town, Sea Pines Resort and Sea Pines Community Services Associates.

About 323,700 cubic yards of sand and mud need to be dredged from the Harbour Town and South Beach marinas, Calibogue Sound, and Braddock Cove and Baynard Cove creeks within Sea Pines. The creeks have become so clogged with sediments that large boats might soon be unable to pass and Harbour Town Yacht Basin might close to yachts, officials within the gated community have said. Some slips have already been lost.

Private groups have paid for dredging in the past, but costs have increased so much they say they no longer can afford it. The last round of dredging in Sea Pines, in 2003, cost about $2.5 million and was paid for by Sea Pines marina owners, businesses, boaters and homeowners along the waterways.

The last round of dredging ended with the South Island Dredging Association, made up of slip owners and residents in Sea Pines, paying a fine but admitting no wrongdoing in a settlement with state officials after a contractor was accused of improperly dumping spoil into Calibogue Sound, instead of an approved offshore site.

Current estimates for dredging now range from about $7 million to $15 million, according to Cary Kelley, executive vice president of CSA.

"We support the legislation," Kelley said Tuesday of CSA. "We're looking at the (municipal improvement district) as a possible long-term funding source to meet our dredging needs."The bill would allow town councils to create a municipal improvement district to dredge waterways by adopting an ordinance by majority vote, after a public hearing.

Unlike tax districts created for redevelopment, or road or drainage improvements, homeowners within the district would not be required to give the town written permission to be taxed. Town officials said they would only create a special tax district if property owners voted for one.

"It's hard for me to imagine council would do that without a referendum," said Mayor Drew Laughlin.

Only permanent residents within Sea Pines would be allowed to vote. Everyone who pays taxes in Sea Pines, however, would be subject to the new tax or fee, including owners of second homes, Patrick said.

Town and Sea Pines officials have proposed a tiered approach, with property owners closest to the waterways paying the most and those living farthest away the least.Sea Pines resident and Town Councilman George Williams Jr. said CSA and the Association of Sea Pines Plantation Property Owners board of directors will vote soon on a resolution requesting that the town create the special tax district.

Williams asked town staff Tuesday to begin figuring out how the town could use a fee or tax "to get ahead of the curve." That would allow the town to hold a referendum quickly if the bill becomes a law.

"If we're lucky, it'll be the fall before we get something established," Williams said.

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