A former school board member with a beef about zoning and sewer fees is taking on a longtime Georgetown County Council member who has chaired the local government for more than six years.
Ben Grate, 62, is challenging County Council Chairman Johnny Morant, 63, in the Democratic primary for the Plantersville-based Council District 7 nomination. No Republican is running, so the winner will likely take office.
Both agree that the main issue in the sprawling rural district that covers much of northwest Georgetown County is economic development, but they are far apart on how to get there.
Morant, who was first elected in 1993 to an unexpired term, said he has the proven background and leadership capabilities, demonstrated by the other members' confidence in him by electing him at least five times to chair the council.
Unlike in Horry County where the chair runs countywide for the post, in Georgetown County the seven council members elect a leader from among themselves every two years. The leader also continues to represent his or her district.
Morant has been elected each term since 2008 and also chosen earlier in the 1990s for at least one term. In recent years he was still picked even though the council has a Republican majority.
One reason for that he said, is that “I try to make sure that regardless of what party you are in, things are going to get done on an even-handed basis.”
Grate was elected to the school board in 1994 and later switched to the Republican Party. He ran for re-election but lost to a Democrat. The school board has since changed to nonpartisan elections.
Grate said the party-switching was because of some politics happening at the time, and that he has always been a Democrat. But he has not run for office again until now.
Grate says he is seeking office because the zoning prevented him from opening a water-bottling operation on his property among some residences. He was denied because it is not zoned for commercial use.
But he said he has had a lab business there for years and the water-bottling would not be much different. It is not a noisy or polluting operation and would provide 20 jobs, he said.
“They zoned my business out,” Grate said.
He blames Morant for the zoning, but Morant said the zoning was discussed in multiple community meetings before it was adopted and that the residents' wishes were taken into account.
The zoning protects residential property from commercial encroachment and allows places for businesses to locate, he said.
Before the operation was denied, Grate sought a business loan through a program administered by Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments, but he was denied, and blames Morant for that as well because Morant is on the council of governments board.
Morant said Grate was denied the loan because he could not provide clear title to the property where he wanted to put the bottling operation.
“I thought I wasn't treated fairly,” Grate said, and he said he has filed a complaint about it with the U.S. Justice Department.
He also complains of the $250 yearly sewer impact fee that started this year. Many other communities in the district did not have to pay the fee. Morant said a $1 million grant was to have paid the costs for the homeowners, many of whom are low-income, but it was lost because it took too long to resolve a dispute over whether the sewer lines should be installed.
Morant said people wanted the public sewer service because their septic tanks were failing, but some environmental groups fought the line extension because they said it would lead to more development.
The public sewer helps the people who had failing septic tanks but will also help economic development in the area, Morant said.
Grate said he wants the fees removed, possibly by obtaining another grant. Morant has to share the blame because of the way the sewer project turned out, he said.
Morant said he is among those who wanted the sewer project but had no control over its costs. The utility is operated by Georgetown County Water and Sewer District, an independent organization which is not under the control of the council.
Morant said he wants to continue in office to help finish some of the things that began.
“I always wanted to serve and help others when I had that opportunity,” he said.
Finishing recreational facilities that residents have long wanted is one goal, and he said he wants to see more roads paved with the funds that come from an annual road user fee that is attached to tax bills.
Another issue is continuing to push for money to dredge the port channel back to its required depth. Getting the port back on track and drawing in new shipping business would be a big economic boost, he said.
Grate said the district can’t move forward while it is burdened with zoning and many residents are weighed down with the sewer fees, and the former Marine said he is going to battle over it.
“Now the Marines have landed,” he said. “There are going to be some casualties and some extensive collateral damages.”