Lawsuit fails to stop Charleston County from using penny tax to extend I-526


CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) – The Coastal Conservation League lost part of a lawsuit attempting to stop certain funds from paying for the Mark Clark extension, but won another portion accusing Charleston County of violating state law.
The Coastal Conservation League sued Charleston County in 2019 alleging the county could not use penny tax funds to build the I-526 Mark Clark expansion, but lost that challenge. A lower court and the State Court of Appeals affirmed that the community voted yes on the penny tax and the wording supports using the money for any road work.
The courts say their challenge to the money use also challenged the validity of the election, and that would have needed to be brought up soon after the 2004 or 2016 elections for the penny tax.
Coastal Conservation League Executive Director Faith Rivers James says they filed this lawsuit to make sure they got clarity about the process of funding projects for the taxpayers.
“We were so concerned about the challenges to our environment and to our communities that an extension would pose, but we’re also very concerned that the county did not actually explicitly explain to voters what we were voting on,” Rivers James says.
The league says even though the ruling came down saying the money will be used, they ultimately want the process highlighted.
“We had members of council explicitly say that 526 would not be funded. And then the county took action to move money from the projects that were listed to 526. That’s a challenge for all of us, because many of the traffic solutions that we were looking for, could have been funded from that initial tax and they haven’t even broken ground on those,” Rivers James says.
Bradley Taggart has lived on Johns Island for 14 years and supports the I-526 Extension. He says, his neighbors and friends do want to see the route built.
“So it’s for safety. Less miles driven, means less accidents, people aren’t going to have to go through several intersections that have a lot of accidents. Now, there’s just a lot of a lot of reasons,” Taggart says.
He also believes that having a direct route will be beneficial for the environment, since many drivers would drive less miles and spend less time idling in traffic.
“The Coastal Conservation League has a lot of fake outrage on behalf of the taxpayer,” Taggart says. “But yet they’ll drag the government through the courts wasting all kinds of public money, fighting a road that most people in the west side of Charleston have wanted for years. So they took a loss here and they deserved it.”
Court rules county violated FOIA law
When the South Carolina Supreme Court reviewed the lawsuit, they did rule that Charleston County Council violated Freedom of Information Act law at one point in the process. The ruling states council did not properly give the public notice that they might vote on money for the Mark Clark Extension.
At a meeting, council went into executive session to discuss the “Transportation Sales Tax” and came out and voted to reallocate certain funds from another project to I-526. The court agrees with the Coastal Conservation League that the council did not make it clear before or during the meeting that they might vote after their executive session talks, but did so anyway.
“That is one part that’s just a part of good government. And frankly, that is the challenge that still remains for us. All. We want the county to be explicit,” Rivers James says.
Ultimately, the FOIA violation does not stop the ability to use penny tax money for the project, and the timeline continues. The project recently secured additional money from the county and state bank in the past year because of rising costs. Right now, construction is slated to start sometime after 2025.
“I grew up in the Mount Pleasant community and when the Mark Clark extension landed, life in Mount Pleasant has never been the same. And we know that’s what’s going to come on the other side for James Island, for Johns Island, settlements and neighborhoods are going to be divided by this highway,” Rivers James says.
While the CCL pledges it will continue meeting with neighborhoods impacted by construction, many residents across the island plan to continue speaking up for the road they want built.
“I feel like we’re on the right track, but we have to keep going. We can’t let up we have to see it through,” Taggart says.
Charleston County Council Chairman Herbert Sass provided the following statement on the final court ruling:
Last Week’s Court of Appeals decision is another big win for moving the Mark Clark Extension Project forward. We are committed to helping increase capacity, improve safety, and enhance mobility for those living and working in West Ashley, Johns Island, and James Island.
The comment period for future penny sales tax priority projects ends March 6 and the list shows the Mark Clark extension as a priority project. Click here to submit a request to make a public comment to Charleston County.
“Now they’re telling us that the extension of 526 is a priority. Notably, it’s the only priority that’s on the current list,” Rivers James says. “And so they’ve talked about many other projects, but the only thing we know we’re going to get out of this is 526. The challenge is people want Traffic Solutions, but we all have to understand that interstate don’t solve traffic problems, they bring traffic problems.”
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