A state lawmaker from Beaufort wants to investigate a South Carolina maritime agency for its handling of the sale of the Port of Port Royal.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, will ask an independent panel this month to decide whether the S.C. Ports Authority acted appropriately after being ordered more than a decade ago to sell the 317-acre former state port along Battery Creek. In a room filled with Beaufort County leaders Wednesday, Davis repeated his assertion the Ports Authority valued the property much too high.
Davis has speculated the agency kept the property on its books at an inflated value to improve its bonding capacity. He plans to initiate an inquiry by the Legislative Audit Council, which investigates how state agencies handle public resources and present a report to lawmakers and the public.
“There has to be some accountability,” Davis told a group gathered for a Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Callawassie Island Club. “...I don’t think Port Royal was treated fairly.”
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The port property’s sale and development was the centerpiece of the luncheon Wednesday to let lawmakers hear priorities of the business community. The issues covered also included the Jasper Ocean Terminal, economic development and education funding.
The potential redevelopment in Port Royal was listed by the Chamber as a top priority.
After control of the sale was turned over to the Department of Administration, a new appraisal valued the property at $6.95 million. The Ports Authority valued the property as high as $26.6 million, Davis noted in a recent letter to the editor, and more recently at $22.5 million.
Attempts Wednesday afternoon to reach Ports Authority attorney Neil Robinson were unsuccessful. Robinson said in November the new appraisal was “very questionable” but that the agency needed time to review the report.
Sen. Chip Campsen, a Charleston Republican whose district includes Port Royal, said he didn’t think the sale has been handled well and the property should have been sold in 2004. He questioned the timing of a potential Ports Authority probe, adding that he generally supports Audit Council inquiries.
“The biggest thing is don’t screw up this sale now,” Campsen said. “Maybe that would be appropriate afterwards. I’m not sure that’s going to be helpful while this sale is going on.”
Bidding on the property opened Jan. 1 and is open until the end of March. The property must sell for at least 80 percent of its appraised value.
The property will be awarded to the highest qualified bidder the first week of April, followed by a 90-day due-diligence period. Closing is anticipated in August.
Port Royal town manager Van Willis thanked the delegation Wednesday for moving the sale forward. Lawmakers wrested control of the sale from the Ports Authority and required a new appraisal before bidding began.
“The reappraisal was instrumental in creating renewed interest,” Willis said during Wednesday’s luncheon.
Also discussed Wednesday:
A need to be ready for the Jasper port
The Charleston port will be at capacity during the next decade, Campsen said, creating greater urgency for the planned Jasper Ocean Terminal.
“That excess capacity is already going to have to be on the ground and in place at the Jasper port,” he said.
Davis said permitting is expected to be complete by 2020 but that the roads and rail infrastructure need to be in place and ready.
The $4.5 billion project is targeted to open within a decade.
The road back for Hunting Island
Hunting Island remains closed due to the devastation from Hurricane Matthew in October, the only state park still closed after the storm.
Lawmakers noted the park, which draws a million visitors each year, helps pay for the rest of the park system and that funding its recovery needs to be a priority. Money is in place for a beach renourishment project on the island. Plans will be delayed, but the project will eventually move forward.
A legislative committee last year held off on approving money for Hunting Island repairs, with some legislators pointing to other state parks receiving damage during the storm. Rep. Shannon Erickson said those issues have been addressed.
Hunting Island’s oceanfront campground was covered in sand from the storm surge, and bath houses were destroyed. Repairs are expected to cost millions, part of which could be covered by federal emergency assistance.