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Port Royal residents and others throughout the Lowcountry say they plan to keep a close watch as the town and a Charleston developer, whose $16.75 million bid for the shuttered Port of Port Royal was approved last week by the state Budget and Control Board, negotiate development plans for the property.
Many say they will continue to push for a 7- to 10-acre park with public access to the water at the end of London Avenue.
The park is part of a 2006 development plan adopted by the town and S.C. State Ports Authority, which owns the land. But the developer, Ben Gramling, has told officials he would prefer to build private homes at that location.
Changing the development agreement would require approval from the town and the Ports Authority.
Town Council members say they want a park, but some are willing to negotiate one smaller than 10 acres if it means ending a process that has dragged on for five years.
Among those pledging to stay vocal is Port Royal resident Mark Sutton, creator of the online group "Save Us a Slice," which he says is a "grassroots lobby" for a sizable park that would allow the public to walk up to the water.
"Our main cause is to get public access to the river," Sutton said. "We're lobbying to make sure this park still happens, but also to make sure it's on the water, not marsh-locked and relegated to the back."
Gramling has said that while a 10-acre park is probably "undoable," he's looking at different possibilities for green space and is "committed to working with the town to find something that works."
But Sutton is not the only one suspicious of negotiations to change the 2006 development agreement.
St. Helena Island resident George Johnston attended a public meeting Sept. 27 with the town and Gov. Mark Sanford, who has long been a proponent of the park.
"We're selling a property without knowing what would be guaranteed" for the citizens, Johnston said Friday.
Sanford said he is concerned the contract with Gramling splits the sale into two
$8.3 million phases, leaving open the possibility the developer will opt out of the deal before completing the second half of the project.
Other developers thought they had to bid on the whole project and abide by the existing development agreement, Sanford has said.
Johnston agreed it seems unfair that Gramling potentially could negotiate a deal different than the one presented to other developers.
In a public transaction, the details should be up front, not open to so much interpretation, he said.
Johnston wants more of the focus to be on residents who don't live along the waterfront.
"We know there will be more value on the gentrified waterfront property," Johnston said. "But I wonder about the other city, namely the innercity Port Royal. ... Their stake in this, as far as I can see, is that park. That's what will add value to their property."
Some thanked Sanford during last week's public meeting for getting involved.
Sutton even suggested naming the park the Governor's Park.
Others asked residents at the Sept. 27 meeting to have faith Town Council will keep their best interests in mind as negotiations proceed, including the environmental watchdog organization the Coastal Conservation League.
And some seemed just as fearful further delays could kill the deal.
"Nobody here doesn't want a park," Jeff Pinckney of the Port Royal development company P Squared said at the meeting. "Let's just get moving forward with it. We're dragging our feet."
Business owner Nancy Harris Vista said that once the state ordered the port closed and sold in 2004, the town went into a "holding pattern" that has hurt the local economy.
Vista said she has talked to many business owners who are elated the sale is moving forward after multiple delays, some sparked by the recent debate over open space.
Sanford, who sits on the Budget and Control Board, delayed a vote on the subject at least once.
"The fact that the process has been held up for so long is what I think businesses are most concerned about," said Vista, who added that she trusts Town Council to protect the public's interest. "We certainly want as much as anyone to have a fair amount of open space. ... But don't keep stalling for time. Let the process move forward. The town isn't going to do anything that will ultimately hurt itself."