Public must pay attention to development agreement

Renegotiating the terms of a development agreement for the Port of Port Royal site makes sense.

The agreement was the subject of contentious debate when the property seemed close to a sale recently. That deal did not go through, so now is the best time to resolve that debate. Do it before new suitors come to the table, not after.

But it needs to be done openly and with clarity.

Town Council recently authorized the town manager and town attorney to negotiate development agreement issues with the S.C. State Ports Authority, which owns the 51-acre site of the mothballed port.

The biggest point of contention is the development agreement's demand for a 10-acre park. The previous bidder wanted to put houses on the land designated for open space. The town seemed willing to approve that, saying 10 acres of open space was not needed. The public turned out in large numbers to argue both for and against keeping a park of that size in the plan.

The town must be clear about what it is negotiating, and the public needs to pay attention.

Several other issues are in play, the town leaders say. They think the agreement should be extended beyond its current expiration date of July 2012. That would be prudent because potential buyers at this point will need to know what they can and cannot do with the property beyond that date. The saga of the sale of the port site began in 2004 and still has no end in sight.

Also, the town might want to include a land swap, which could help it and the buyer. And it might want to require quicker construction after the sale than the 5-year window in the current agreement.

Meanwhile, merchants and town leaders continue to search for new ways to pull more people off Ribaut Road and into the town to shop and visit. It appears that goal would be directly linked to public access to the waterfront, so whatever is negotiated about the park site needs to be discussed openly and coordinated with other town visions.

Any changes to the development agreement would have to be approved by Town Council and the state Ports Authority. On the town's part, that would require two open votes and a public hearing.

Public interest in the process should not wait until that potential public hearing. The public should stay involved throughout the process as the town reviews its development agreement on the port site.