An agreement of some sort on the city of Beaufort's plans for the Beaufort Downtown Marina parking lot could come within a month, according to Redevelopment Commission chairman Jon Verity.
It's the "some sort" part that troubles resident Edie Rodgers.
"We don't know what is going on behind the scenes, and that makes me uncomfortable," she said. "... If only they would give us some idea of what they're talking about. We don't need all those details, but we would like to have some idea of what's going on in the midst of all this master planning."
Half a year after the city made the concept of redeveloping the area surrounding the marina part of its Civic Master Plan, the Redevelopment Commission began asking prospective developers to submit letters of interest outlining their qualifications and examples of what they might do with the four-acre site.
Verity said at the time a formal agreement might -- or might not -- follow. For now, the commission is simply collecting ideas.
The city has twice denied The Beaufort Gazette's request to see those ideas. The city says it does not have to turn over the information because it might become part of a contract negotiation and thus is exempt from disclosure under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender said he does not think the city has a legitimate reason to withhold the information. Conceptual designs and financial information were not requested. Neither contract proposals, nor bids, were solicited.
"If they're just floating ideas and there is no contract, there is no exemption," he said.
On Friday, Mayor Billy Keyserling called the newspaper's questions about the proposals a "fishing trip and you want to be able to say the city is trying to pull the wool over the citizens' eyes."
DEVELOPER PLANS KEPT SECRETRecommended uses for the site include retail, residential and hospitality. Recreational and tourism-related activities such as paddle sports, rowing craft storage and other marina operations also are possibilities, according to the commission's letter soliciting developer ideas.
Five companies responded to the city's request, and Redevelopment Commission members met with three of them, Verity has said.
Further details have been scarce, however.
The Gazette's first information request, submitted in July, was denied in a letter from city attorney Bill Harvey III, who said the plans are exempt from public-records laws because they are "incidental to proposed contractual arrangements."
The Gazette resubmitted its request Sept. 4, after Keyserling stated in one of his regular email newsletters to constituents that "no contracts are on the table." "There is no plan," he wrote. "There is no specific deal in the working. And there will not be until council receives and reviews the (Redevelopment Commission's) findings."
However, the city again denied the Gazette's information request, citing the same exemption for contractual arrangements.
On Friday, Keyserling said he erred in the wording of his newsletter. He should have clarified that there would not be a deal that "commits the city to anything other than exploration," Keyserling said Friday.
No development will occur without the public's notification, he added.
State public-records laws grant wide exemptions for economic-development efforts, Bender said. It also allows governmental bodies to keep documents related to contract negotiations out of the public eye until they are signed.
Verity said he does not intend to release the names of any of the four developers who do not win an agreement with the city, even after a deal is reached.
But that might be interpreting the exemption too broadly, Bender said.
"I think the city is misreading the law," Bender said. "The law does not shelter the names of the bodies that responded to the request. ... To say you can't see any of this material, I think, is a violation of the law."
WHAT NEXT?Discussions were narrowed to one developer a month ago, Verity said, and the commission is working on a memorandum of understanding, which it would vote on publicly. The memorandum would include how property would be transferred and under what circumstances, but would not include a lease or sales agreement, Verity said.
It would also outline the next steps, which will include an "extensive" public comment opportunity as the commission and developer create a plan for the site, he said. He has repeatedly said an actual development plan will not be created until residents give input.
State law allows redevelopment commissions to agree to contracts, borrow money, and to prepare and recommend redevelopment projects.
However, a development contract would be negotiated by City Council because the city owns the parking lot, Verity said.
That doesn't reassure Rodgers, a former Republican state representative.
"I still think that it is still so important for our citizens to develop a sense of trust with their city government, and they don't have that now," she said.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.