Letters to the Editor

Don't sidestep rail agreement

Just before the holidays, outgoing Commerce Department Secretary Joe Taylor delivered what he likely hoped would be an early Christmas present to the Port of Charleston: an equal dual access rail plan to serve the new container terminal being built at the old Navy Base.

Turns out it was really a lump of coal.

That's because Taylor and some state legislators have concocted a plan to violate an agreement the State Ports Authority penned eight years ago with the city of North Charleston. The implications of such a reckless and unlawful action could have disastrous effects on every municipality in the state.

At issue is whether trains serving the new port terminal being constructed on the southern end of the former Navy base should be allowed to run north through North Charleston. An agreement between the city and the SPA signed in 2002 forbids it.

Yet, Taylor and some state legislators claim the agreement between the SPA and the city is not binding on the state.

These legislators should know better.

Let's go back to 2002. Act No. 256 directed the SPA to begin permitting the Navy base terminal, directed other state agencies to pursue funding for infrastructure improvements, and created an exception to general zoning laws to prevent the base from being down zoned. Meanwhile, the city struck a deal with key legislators to divide the base in half. The SPA would get the southern half, and the city would support the new terminal by changing its zoning to allow for it. In exchange, the city would get the northern half to pursue its redevelopment plans.

A second bill was passed to facilitate this compromise. Act No. 356 directed the division of the property - but also contained clear language that is critical to understanding the rail-access agreement. The act expressly directs the city and the SPA to enter into a memorandum of understanding and agreement - and that is precisely what happened.

On Oct. 25, 2002, that agreement was signed. Among other things, the agreement states that the SPA acknowledges the city does not want the SPA to utilize rail access from the north end of the property, and the SPA will use rail exclusively from the south end of the property.

In short, the legislation and legislative history are clear. The SPA and North Charleston were directed by the legislature to enter into an agreement to address, among other port-related issues, rail access to the terminal. To say the state is not bound by this agreement is to simply ignore history, clear legislation and principles of fairness.

This flagrant departure from fairness led Gov. Mark Sanford in 2009 to veto a proviso that would have undermined the rail-access portion of the agreement. The governor had strong words: The principle here is a simple one, your word is your bond - and this proviso would break with the words given that facilitated the SPA move from Daniel Island to North Charleston. Were it not for that agreement the port would likely have never come to this site in the first place. It isn't right to some years later try and change the deal that got you where you are. The same legislative principals who were there in negotiating this original agreement are now party to this proviso that would change it.

The city of North Charleston and the homeowners, entrepreneurs and private companies that have invested in the redevelopment of the northern end of the Navy Base - in reliance on the agreement of the state not to run rail through there - should expect nothing less from their state government. If our legislators are allowed to cast aside written agreements between state agencies and municipalities whenever it becomes convenient, it will be a dark day in the legislative history of South Carolina.

The writer is a former member of the S.C. House of Representatives and an attorney for Shipyard Creek Associates and the Noisette Co.