Stung by the rejection of an offer to purchase land at the shuttered Port of Port Royal -- and the State Ports Authority's decade-long inability to sell the property -- a Beaufort developer is taking his frustration to the street.
Dick Stewart, treasurer of the new Santa Elena Foundation, has sent multiple emails to authority representatives and started a campaign of meeting with Port Royal residents and media outlets after the Ports Authority rejected the foundation's $1.2 million bid for less than 4 acres of the property.
"My strategy now is to irritate them enough so they will up and leave," Stewart said.
At recent speaking engagements, Stewart passed out spreadsheets of contact information and urged people to complain to Ports Authority board members and write letters to the editor of newspapers in Beaufort County, Charleston and Columbia.
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The foundation made its offer in January, according to Stewart; it was declined in a letter from Peter Lehman, an authority vice president. In a subsequent letter, Neil Robinson, an attorney for the authority, said the foundation sought to "cherry-pick" a prime piece of the property for far less than its market value.
Stewart counters that the foundation intends to pay market value for the property, but the Ports Authority makes it virtually impossible to determine that value because it has not disclosed details of a March 2013 appraisal that sets a $22.5 million value for the entire 317-acre property, 52 of which are buildable.
The Ports Authority was ordered by the General Assembly to sell the port after it closed in 2004, yet the prime piece of real estate in Port Royal remains unused and off the tax rolls.
In a recent letter responding to the Santa Elena Foundation's offer, Robinson notes the state agency has had three deals in place only to have them wrecked by financing problems and other concerns.
But Stewart asserts that three weeks of prodding to get a response to the foundation's offer is indicative of the authority's lack of urgency to sell.
LIGHTING A FIRE
Stewart isn't the only one losing patience with the Ports Authority.
State Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, and state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, are preparing companion bills that seek to force the Ports Authority to move faster to sell the property.
The identical bills are being reviewed by Ports Authority representatives. The bills are also being reviewed by Erickson and Davis to clean up some legal language. Davis said he expects the bills to be filed as soon as Tuesday.
The bills would allow the Ports Authority to subdivide the property so that it could be sold in chunks, according to a draft, on the theory that developers would have less difficulty getting financing for a portion of the property than for all of it.
The bills would allow the land to be sold for 80 percent of the appraised value, and force the Ports Authority to sell it by June 30, 2015, or auction it away, according to the draft.
Town officials welcome ideas to expedite the sale after a decade of uncertainty and misfires, according to Port Royal town manager Van Willis.
He pointed to the dilapidated area at the far end of Paris Avenue, near Town Hall and the Ports Authority property, where some invested heavily to revitalize old buildings and start new businesses in anticipation of a sale, only to close shop when no deals materialized.
Those who remain struggle to stay in business, according to Willis, who estimates that a developed port property could bring about $1 million a year in economic impact and 500 jobs.
A SHOT IN THE ARM
Stewart thinks the Santa Elena Foundation could provide the shot in the arm that end of Paris Avenue needs.
The group hopes to seize upon the area's history.
Santa Elena was a Spanish settlement and the capital of Spanish Florida from 1566 to 1587. It was built on Parris Island, atop the site of the abandoned French outpost of Charlesfort, which was founded in 1562 by Jean Ribault.
The property the foundation bid on is just across the deep waters of Battery Creek from Parris Island, now home to the U.S. Marine Corps' Recruit Depot.
The Santa Elena Foundation plans a visitor center featuring a museum, video of excavations on Parris Island and restaurant and retail amenities that would support the nonprofit foundation. A waterfront portion of the property is key, Stewart says, because it would allow the foundation to use ferries to shuttle visitors to and from Hilton Head Island and possibly to Parris Island.
Stewart said the foundation's plans would require no changes to the town of Port Royal's master plan for the property.
Members of the foundation's board are working with the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C., and plan a trip in May to examine historic documents related to the founding of Santa Elena in 1566.
"They're very supportive and are going to allow us access to files," Stewart said.
AT WHAT PRICE
Attempts last week to reach Ports Authority board vice president Lehman and authority attorney Robinson for comment were unsuccessful. Authority spokeswoman Erin Pabst sent a brief statement Friday in response to a list of questions and request for interviews with Lehman and Robinson.
"We will review any future proposals that are in keeping with the manner in which the three parcels are currently listed," part of that statement said.
However, Stewart provided copies of a series of pointed emails among himself, Lehman and Robinson.
At one point in the string, Robinson warns Stewart his tone might jeopardize a deal with the state agency:
"I will caution you, however, that the Ports Authority Board will not take kindly to the disrespectful and untruthful allegations contained in your letter..." Robinson wrote.
Stewart sent a reply Feb. 15 and said he has not heard back.
In an interview with The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette last week, Stewart acknowledged that the foundation's offer might not reflect the land's market value. However, he says the Ports Authority has made it virtually impossible to determine that value because it refuses to release details of the 2013 appraisal.
"It's very strange behavior," Stewart said.
Pabst's statement said the Ports Authority cannot release the appraisal because the property is being marketed for sale.
Stewart proposes that the authority and foundation hire their own appraisers to determine the property's worth. If the values are far apart and cannot be negotiated, the two parties would hire a third independent appraiser to set the selling price.
Stewart suspects the Ports Authority holds details about the property close to the vest because of potential environmental problems. (In a Feb. 14 letter that was part of the email exchange Stewart provided to the newspapers, Robinson called Stewart's assertions "elaborate, unfounded allegations of environmental concerns.")
The Port of Port Royal has been home to a number of industrial enterprises, which are partially detailed in environmental reports from previous purchase attempts. Those enterprises include a railroad depot, a fertilizer company, a seafood processing plant and a cement distribution company.
The reports detail the possibility of eight hazardous sites on the property.
Spilled oil and fertilizer are among the possible contaminants.
"Environmental studies completed on the property did not reflect adverse environmental conditions, and any further studies would be completed by the buyer depending on the future use of the property," the Ports Authority said in Friday's statement.
The Ports Authority tested for nitrates in the soil near two silos, on the portion of the property the foundation seeks to purchase, because one of the silos once stored fertilizer, according to Stewart. The tests raised no alarms, but Stewart wonders whether the authority should have taken more soil samples from a wider area and tested for more potential hazards.
The property also includes two monitoring wells, though their purpose is not clear, according to a 2005 environmental report.
"(T)he monitoring wells would likely not exist if there were not reason for concern to the environment," the report reads.
One of the previous would-be buyers, Port Royal Harbour LLC, started the process to become part of the state's Brownfield Voluntary Cleanup Program, which provides financial incentives to companies that acquire and clean up contaminated properties.
Stewart said he has asked for additional environmental documentation, or at the least reassurance that building on the property would not create hazards.
"They don't want to go in and remove anything," he said. "They want the buyer to beware and pay their price."
IN BITS AND PIECES
The testy exchanges between Stewart and Ports Authority officials have produced at least one concession: Lehman wrote that the foundation's pitch has convinced the authority to change its marketing strategy and offer the property in chunks if a buyer for the entire site cannot be found.
Nonetheless, the Ports Authority will not subdivide to meet a suitor's whim, Robinson indicated: "The Ports Authority is not a developer, however, and does not intend to further subdivide the property for smaller, specific uses," he wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to Stewart.
Rather, the authority will revisit its initial plan, set up when the property was first put on the market in 2004, to offer three separate chunks. The listing on the website of the Ports Authority's Realtor, NAI Avant, has been updated to reflect three sections available for individual purpose:
The parcel the foundation seeks is within the Port Village District, which Lehman suggested the foundation bid for.
Stewart said the foundation has neither an interest nor a need for the additional property. He said he has repeatedly sought an asking price for the parcel the foundation wants, but Pabst said there is no appraised value for that area.
Beaufort County property records indicate the property sought by the foundation is worth an estimated $3 million to $4 million, including the existing cement building, which the foundation would leave mostly intact. The same records list the Port Village District at about $6.5 million, although that does not include a portion of the railroad right-of-way.
Stewart said the authority is returning to a marketing strategy -- offering three specific parcels that might or might not suit a developer's needs -- that failed even at the height of the super-heated real estate market that preceded the economic collapse of 2008.
Stewart said he's certain that if the Ports Authority agrees to sell the parcel the foundation wants, buyers interested in purchasing the other parcels will step forward. A contract for the drystack and Sands Beach area would be presented six months later, and there will be an offer for the rest of the property six months after that.
At least one of those properties could be used for a high-end hotel.
Stewart is a principal in the development company 303 Associates, whose holdings include the Beaufort Inn and Beaufort Town Center. He would not name the developers he says have approached him about plans for the port property, but said he was not referring to his own development company.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.