For more than a decade, the State Ports Authority has been a disinterested landlord of one of the finest slices of land in Beaufort County.
As a result, the 317-acre waterfront tract primed for development in the town of Port Royal has remained the ugly, fenced-off site of a shuttered port.
Years ago, the town developed a master plan for development of the site into homes and businesses that would rejuvenate the tax rolls and the community’s unique ambiance. Other local governments, including the school district, bought into the hope by agreeing to go along with a tax increment financing district to help make it happen.
But after being mandated by law to sell the site of the closed Port of Port Royal, the Ports Authority has been like the Tar Baby of Uncle Remus lore. It has been unresponsive to an aggravating and unnecessary level. And it did not get the job done — it did not get the site sold despite four serious offers that all fell apart after months of deliberations.
In fact, things got so bad that a group of local businesspeople sued the ports authority, claiming the agency has mismanaged the sale.
And the state legislature had to intervene. A state law passed in 2014 to speed up the sale — a decade after the sale was first mandated. The new law specified that control of the property would be transferred to the Department of Administration’s General Services division for appraisal and auction if the sale didn’t close by the end of 2015.
For one public body to have to go to this extent with another public body simply to get the Ports Authority to obey the law and sell its unused land is ludicrous.
That is why we support state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort in his plan to shine more light on why the Ports Authority acted this way.
Davis wants a review by the independent Legislative Audit Council, which investigates how state agencies handle public resources and presents a report to lawmakers and the public.
Davis believes the the agency kept the property on its books at an inflated value to improve its bonding capacity. The audit should be able to show what that value has been all these years.
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, and more recently at $22.5 million.
An audit council review will not rewrite history. But this unresponsive state agency needs just what the accounting seeks: more sunshine.
Davis said Friday that he will not seek the LAC investigation — which requires a request from at least five members of the General Assembly — until after the current bidding period closes at the end of March. He said he does not want to roil the waters during a process that could finally break the old logjam. That was a concern of state Sen. Chip Campsen, a Charleston Republican whose district includes Port Royal.
Still, Davis said, “What the State Ports Authority has done to the town of Port Royal over the past 12 years is disgraceful.”
Every detail needs to be aired in public. Perhaps that is one way to bring a bit of public accountability into this sad saga.