It's still in the preliminary stages, but a proposed Hardeeville annexation of yet-to-be developed land inside Beaufort County has officials feeling blindsided and threatening legal action — and concerned about the impact on county taxpayers' wallets.
"They don't have a dog in the fight," Beaufort County Councilman Mike Covert said Wednesday morning, referring to the City of Hardeeville. "No skin in the game."
"I take exception that they would have this conversation without us knowing," he added.
That conversation occurred at a May 9 Hardeeville Planning Commission meeting, at which developers of two parcels of land near the city's boundary pitched master plans to build more than 700 homes east of S.C. 170 and north of the Okatie River, near Oldfield, inside Beaufort County — and practically across the street from portions of the forthcoming East Argent community, planned for 9,500 homes.
The parcels total roughly 180 acres, 20 of which could be used for commercial purposes, according to the plans.
Covert and others worry the project will put a strain on the area's schools, ecosystem and emergency response units at the expense of county taxpayers while Hardeeville incurs minimal cost and reaps all the reward.
But Hardeeville officials contend those concerns can be mitigated if and when the plan moves forward, and if the city approves the annexation.
Meanwhile, according to Hardeeville City Manager Michael Czymbor, the parcels' owners and developers approached the city months ago after growing frustrated with Beaufort County, the entity they've worked with for years in an attempt to get the project off the ground.
The two parcels, submitted to Hardeeville as Malind Bluff and Malind Point, were earlier proposed as planned unit developments in Beaufort County, according to interim Beaufort County Administrator Josh Gruber. They are the remnants of the controversial Okatie Village plan, which collapsed after the 2008 economic downturn. However, the parcels were re-envisioned with amendments and, as recently as March, were still being considered by the county.
But with news of the Hardeeville proposal arriving last weekend, Gruber says developers engaged in "jurisdiction shopping" — pitting one agency against another after they didn't get the results they wanted. (In this case, according to Covert, the county took issue with the number of proposed homes and asked for a traffic impact analysis, which it hasn't yet received.)
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette left two voice mail messages with attorney Lewis Hammet — who, according to the master-plan documents, represents the landowners — but those messages were not returned.
Additionally, the newspapers reached out to Malind Bluff owner LCP III, LLC and Malind Point owner BBII Holding Company, LLC early Thursday morning, but those calls were not returned.
Gruber said he was caught off guard Saturday when he learned of the potential annexation, but added that it was still too early "to say if this is a good thing or a bad thing."
"Certainly I would have liked to hear about it from the town directly rather than learning about it through a third party," he said. He added that he and Czymbor would be meeting next week to discuss the issue, which he called "sensitive."
When asked if he thought the city blindsided the county, Czymbor said the May 9 meeting agenda had been posted in advance on the city's website as required by state law; county officials could have viewed it there, he said, and could have attended the meeting.
"There is some legal contention," Czymbor said, explaining a court might have to decide whether the clock had run out on any arrangements between the county and the landowners, and whether they'd be able to pursue annexation.
The city's planning commission recommended approval of the master plan and zoning elements of the project, according to Hardeeville Director of Planning Brana Snowden, but did not take up the annexation petition.
Hardeeville City Council will discuss annexation at a later date, she said, adding that the developers had not yet submitted a development agreement, another requirement before the project can be fully considered.
"I hope we can work together with (Hardeeville) in an honest manner to resolve this issue so it does not take on an ugly appearance," Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart — whose district would be home to Malind Bluff and Malind Pointe — said at Monday's council meeting.
Like Covert, Stewart worries the county will have to pick up the tab for the building of new schools and public safety services.
Czymbor, who said he'd watched Monday's council meeting, said he "believes there are some misunderstandings" about who provides services.
According to Czymbor, Beaufort County would still be responsible for advanced life support services, but that Hardeeville police and fire units would service the area, too. And he added that the developers would "probably be required" to pay school impact fees, which Czymbor said would go to the county.
Regardless, Gruber, at Monday's meeting, said the county might not have much legal standing to stop the process because current state laws are favorable toward municipal annexation; he cited examples such as the failed attempt to stop Port Royal's annexation of Rose Island.
But Covert said council has "given instructions" to Gruber to do everything in his power to fight the attempt.
"If that involves (a lawsuit)," Covert said, "then so be it."