Choice of firm to plan Beaufort marina development occurred behind closed doors

emoody@beaufortgazette.comNovember 30, 2013 

As the ink dries on an agreement with developers to help remake the Beaufort Downtown Marina, city officials are providing more information about how the deal was made.

Among the revelations: The Beaufort Redevelopment Commission was in informal talks with the firm it eventually chose as the city's partner even before the formal selection process started.

And the city attorney and the commission's chairman told City Council that Historic Marina Partners LLC would be the commission's pick, even though a vote in open session had not yet taken place, as required by state law.

"It doesn't matter if the consensus is expressed by vote, poll or a rubbing of noses, if the group committed to a single proposal in executive session, it violated the law," said S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender.

Commission chairman Jon Verity and city attorney Bill Harvey said nothing was done illegally.

Historic Marina Partners LLC -- a partnership between Steve Navarro of The Furman Co., based in Greenville, and Jim Chaffin of Beaufort-based Chaffin-Light -- was introduced as the city's partner on the marina project Nov. 12, when City Council approved a memorandum of understanding.

Navarro is president of a 125-year-old firm. Chaffin is a protègè of the late Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser and part of the partnership that developed Spring Island.

Their impressive credentials weighed in the commission's pick, Verity said, but ultimately it was their openness to new ideas that swayed the commission.

"Part of the reason they were so positively accepted by the committee is because they had such an open mind and not a preconceived notion," Verity said. "... In all honesty, the more detailed (other candidates) were about what might go there, the more locked in they were, the more we lost interest."

Historic Marina Partners will participate in public forums to gather ideas for the 4.2-acre city-owned waterfront property.

CHOOSING A DEVELOPER

Beaufort officials announced and signed the agreement with Historic Marina Partners in early November, but conversations about the site began much earlier.

Navarro said he became interested in the site a year and a half ago when visiting with Scott Myer for an unrelated project. Myer helped him contact Verity then and again four or five months later, Verity said.

Discussions about what might be done with the marina property were not detailed, Verity said, adding he did not know Furman would respond to the request for letters of interest when the commission solicited them in the spring.

"No one told us until the letters came in that Chaffin and Furman were going to make a combined proposal," Verity said. "... I don't know that if Furman hadn't done that they would have gotten it."

Verity said he or city officials and staff spoke informally at some point with most of the developers who submitted letters of interest, before the commission formally asked for those letters.

Gramling Brothers of Charleston, East West Partners of Charleston, Blanchard and Calhoun of Augusta, and Steve Tully of Beaufort also submitted letters of interest.

Tully had some early concerns about the process, but agreed Navarro and Chaffin were a good choice for the project.

"At first, I was sort of skeptical, but in hindsight, they did a pretty good job," he said of city officials' decision.

While he did not speak with Verity or other city officials about the project, Tully said informal conversations are to be expected from any company doing its due diligence. Verity is very easily accessible, he said.

"I wouldn't be shocked if they didn't have many, many conversations with many, many people before they did the (request), and I wouldn't see anything wrong with that," Tully said.

VETTING AND VOTING

A Redevelopment Commission subcommittee met with three of the prospects. Working off predetermined "talking points," candidates were asked how a partnership might work, if they saw potential problems with the site, if they could identify the project's target consumers and if they had specific ideas for redevelopment.

Verity said each subcommittee member had a rough 1-to-5 scale to rank how they felt about each prospect. But the rankings were not used because Chaffin and Navarro were clear favorites, in part because of Furman's financial acumen and Chaffin's reputation in the community, he said.

Most of the developers seemed too commercial, inexperienced or more interested in flipping the property, Verity said.

Subcommittee members conveyed their feelings to the rest of the commission in closed session, and although no votes were taken, Harvey said there was general consensus through "just discussion" to work with Navarro and Chaffin.

State law prohibits government bodies from taking votes, action or even straw polls during closed-door sessions.

"... Coming to a consensus that was adopted by council suggests strongly that a decision was reached in a closed meeting, which would be a violation of the law," press lawyer Bender said.

The commission's consensus was reported by Verity and Harvey to council. In his introduction of the agreement at City Council's meeting Nov. 12, Mayor Billy Keyserling said the Redevelopment Commission had recommended the partnership.

However, the commission's open-session vote wasn't taken until the next morning.

Keyserling said the members of the Redevelopment Commission are much more qualified to make decisions on these types of development issues than council is, so he relied on the commission's expertise.

"We did go over it in executive session ... and I'm sure that at one point, they briefed us along the way as to where they were," he said.

Councilman George O'Kelley Jr. voted against the agreement because he doesn't believe anything should be built by a private developer on the city-owned lot. He said Verity made a recommendation to council in closed session and "presented us with the ones they decided to choose."

He didn't know how that recommendation came about, he said.

"I don't know; they simply presented it to us, and council voted," he said. "If the Redevelopment Commission says this is the one we like, I wouldn't think they would have to make that public before it goes before council."

WHAT'S NEXT?

The agreement between the developers and the city says it will result in a formal development proposal. Then City Council will determine whether to approve it and how to proceed. A development contract is not guaranteed in the agreement.

Meanwhile, Navarro and Chaffin are seeking public input on plans for the marina property for 60 to 90 days, and soon after, the public should get its first look at preliminary plans, Chaffin told representatives from city neighborhoods Nov. 20. That presentation will be followed by more public input.

Historic Marina Partners' plan must ultimately include more downtown parking. If that plan is approved by City Council, the land would be leased or sold to the developers, but only after it is first conveyed to the Redevelopment Commission, according to the memorandum of understanding.

City attorney Harvey said putting the property in the commission's possession will mean fewer "burdens" under South Carolina law than if the developers worked directly with the council or city staff. For example, the commission does not have to go through a bid process for the development project, which could save money and time, Harvey said.

"In our view, this is a much smoother process than trying to bid it out," he said.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.

Related content:

Beaufort releases responses to request for marina development, http://www.islandpacket.com/2013/11/19/2802290/beaufort-releases-responses-to.html

Marina developers seek Beaufort residents' input

http://www.islandpacket.com/2013/11/13/2789969/marina-developers-meeting-with.html

Spring Island developer, Greenville developer pair up for Beaufort Downtown Marina project, Nov. 12, 2013

http://www.islandpacket.com/2013/11/13/2789969/marina-developers-meeting-with.html

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