Secrecy on marina lot plans doesn't serve the public

info@islandpacket.comOctober 24, 2013 

The city of Beaufort's continuing secrecy about its plans for the Downtown Marina parking lot ignores who owns the land and who has a keen interest in any changes to the high-visibility property along Bay Street -- the people of Beaufort.

Twice, the city has rejected this newspaper's request to see the ideas for a makeover collected by its Redevelopment Commission -- requests that Mayor Billy Keyserling has characterized as a "fishing trip.

"You want to be able to say the city is trying to pull the wool over the citizens' eyes," he told our reporter.

No, we want to show residents the suggestions for the property and to provide some sense of the number and type of companies that have expressed interest in redeveloping it.

Redevelopment Commission chairman Jon Verity insists the public will have time to vet whatever recommendation it makes to City Council although it is unclear today what that recommendation will entail. This process started with letters requesting that prospective developers submit ideas for the 4-acre site; more recently, Verity has said the commission is looking for a redevelopment partner, not a plan.

Whatever the case, Verity also has indicated the public will not see ideas the commission gathered but does not include in its final presentation to council. That's unfortunate. Without that context, the public can't assess the commission's performance or whether it has chosen the best use for the marina space.

The Redevelopment Commission behaves as if it is a private company, but even private companies have operated more openly.

For instance, 303 Associates and its principal, Dick Stewart, recently unveiled two conceptual site plans to redevelop more than a block of the Downtown Historic District. One set of plans was made public even though Stewart has not yet asked for formal review and even though the plans are contingent on a land deal 303 Associates has not yet closed.

Public bodies often complain about early disclosure, and indeed, the state's Freedom of Information Act includes broad exemptions for economic-development projects and contract negotiations.

But these exemptions are not open-ended, and the marina ideas the city presumably has collected don't appear to qualify.

Keyserling, in one of his regular emails to constituents, stated there were no contracts "on the table" and "no specific deal in the working." This jibes with Verity's statement at the outset of this process that collecting ideas is not the same thing as acting upon them.

But if there is no contract negotiation, how can the city claim an exemption?

This is an important project in the city, and the public has the right to know how and why the commission reached a decision, as well as what that decision is.

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