Legislation introduced to force sale of Port of Port Royal

emoody@beaufortgazette.comMarch 5, 2014 

The S.C. State Ports Authority would be forced to sell the Port of Port Royal by June 30, 2015, or auction it away under a bill introduced Wednesday by state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort.

The legislation is intended to speed the sale of waterfront property that the authority shuttered and was ordered to sell about a decade ago.

"We've been dealing with this last piece of legislation for the last 10 years," Erickson said. "And 10 years is a long time for the town of Port Royal, the residents of the area, to be waiting on a change that is so significant."

Reps. Weston Newton, Andy Patrick and Bill Herbkersman -- all Republicans -- are co-sponsors.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, is preparing similar -- but not likely identical -- legislation that he has said he intends to introduce soon in the Senate.

Erickson's bill would give the Ports Authority an additional 90 days to complete a sale if a deal is pending by the June 2015 deadline. However, if the property were to be sold at auction, the winning price would be considered "fair market value" and thus satisfy state laws governing sale of property, the legislation reads.

"My goal is come up with something that helps the Ports Authority because if I don't help them, I hurt us, too," Erickson said.

In 2004, the legislature ordered the Ports Authority to sell the 317-acre property, with wetlands and 52 buildable acres, by Dec. 31, 2009. When that did not happen, the port was transferred to the State Budget and Control Board. That body quickly transferred the land back to the Ports Authority.

A town of Port Royal's plan for the property depicts a mix of commercial and residential development, but at least three deals to sell the port and bring those plans to fruition have fallen through.

Erickson's bill would:

  • Instruct the Ports Authority to make a sale "as soon as practicable," instead of "in a manner that is financially responsible and advantageous," as currently directed.
  • Allow the land to be sold in parts or in whole.
  • Require an appraisal by a state-certified appraiser with knowledge of "closed industrial sites," rather than expertise in marine terminal facilities, as current legislation requires.
  • Require the appraisal to reflect probable environmental problems and "structurally unsound improvements."

The bill also strikes language requiring the property to be sold at fair market value and at prices meeting or exceeding appraised value.

Erickson said her bill might be different from legislation Davis is crafting for the Senate. She worked off a draft they composed together but made several changes -- for instance, deleting a requirement that bids must start at 80 percent of appraised value if the property goes to auction.

"I think we need to give the Ports Authority the flexibility to make some good decisions," she said of the changes.

Attempts Wednesday to reach Davis for comment were unsuccessful.

In January, the Beaufort County-based Santa Elena Foundation made an offer to purchase a little less than four acres on the waterfront for $1.2 million. It wants to build a visitor center featuring a museum, video of excavations of a historic site on Parris Island, and restaurant and retail shops that would support the nonprofit foundation.

However, the Ports Authority rejected the offer, which it said attempted to "cherry pick" a prime piece of the property at a price well below market value.

The group's treasurer, developer Dick Stewart, criticized the authority's inability to sell the property after a decade of trying in a testy email exchange with ports representatives. His concerns included potential environmental problems on the site and the authority's appraised price.

Meanwhile, a group of five Port Royal residents say they started a grass-roots campaign to draw attention to the vacant port and the struggles to sell it. The group began discussing the campaign about a month ago, independent and unaware of the Santa Elena Foundation's offer, member John Ellerbe said.

"It got underway as a general protest of having a derelict port being the mainstay of what I think would be a beautiful part of town," he said. They are encouraging a letter writing campaign, handing out addresses for residents to write to and seeking signatures for a petition, trying to get the Port Authority's attention.

Ellerbe said the group wants to get Ports Authority representatives to come to Port Royal to speak and answer resident's questions.

"The reasons we've been upset is they won't communicate with us," he said. "They won't communicate with us at all. And they have this god awful piece of property and view."

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.

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