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Prince George: USC hopes charter board and residents will talk over land deal

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A tract at Prince George remains the first choice for a new campus for Coastal Montessori Charter School despite the threat of a lawsuit from adjacent property owners, but charter school board members are looking at alternate sites. The school is already a year behind schedule and is running out of space at Waccamaw Middle School, where it opened in 2012.

The head of the University of South Carolina Development Foundation, which owns the property, said he is willing to try to negotiate with the school and the Prince George Community Association. “We would like everybody to win,” Russ Meekins said.

The charter school wants to buy 109 acres on the west side of Highway 17 from the USC Development Foundation. Wetlands and endangered species habitat limit development to 10 acres. The Prince George Community Association has told the charter school board it is willing to go to court to block the sale, saying the USC foundation isn’t living up to the agreements it made in 1994 when it helped a private development group buy 1,934 acres between the Atlantic Ocean and the Waccamaw River from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The agency acquired the land from a failed bank.

The foundation kept 1,200 acres for proposed environmental education facilities. The remainder was developed as single-family homes. The community association objects to the foundation’s plan to sell its remaining property on the east side of Highway 17 for residential development. The association was assigned the right to enforce the agreement between the foundation and the original developers in 2006.

Meekins said he doesn’t believe there is anything in the agreement with the developers that would prevent the sale of the property to the charter school. “We’ve looked at everything,” he said.

A lawsuit could thwart the charter school’s plans even if it isn’t successful.

“It’s the time and it’s the money, and we don’t have either one,” said Rob Horvath, who chairs the charter school board.

Charter schools are public schools, but they are exempt from some state regulation and have their own governing board. Although Coastal Montessori is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District, the proposed campus would belong to the nonprofit charter school. It plans to borrow $5 million from the federal Rural Development agency to buy the $625,000 property and build a 25,000-square-foot school.

Coastal Montessori has 162 students in grades one through six. It has asked the school district for an additional classroom at Waccamaw Middle to add 30 students in grades four through six next year. Once it has a building of its own, the charter school hopes to add grades seven and eight.

Scott Eaton, president of the Prince George association, said last month that the group doesn’t have a problem with the school. It objects to the USC foundation trying to seek the property east of Highway 17. He also said the association had been unable to get the foundation to meet with them.

Meekins said this week he did meet with the property owners last month. Their objections “were surprising to me, frankly,” he said. “They’re worried that the county’s going to come to the foundation and build a high school on the east side.”

The state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism holds a conservation easement on the USC foundation property, but Meekins said it only covers the wetlands. “If the property was meant to be protected forever, why wasn’t the conservation easement extended to cover the high ground,” he said.

He admits there aren’t many suitable buyers for the proposed charter school tract, which is restricted to educational uses. The community association’s threat of a suit to block the charter school would hang over any future buyer, but the foundation doesn’t want to go to court to settle the issue. “Everybody ends up losing,” Meekins said.

The charter school has notified Rural Development about the potential suit and asked the agency how a change in sites would affect its loan application, which is now under review. “It’s not going to be a really big, big deal,” Horvath said.

The charter school board formed a committee last month to find alternate sites and develop a backup plan. “We’ve identified a few pieces of property,” Horvath said.

Although the school would be responsible for managing the 99 acres surrounding a campus at Prince George, the charter board likes the site because it is closer to Georgetown and will help attract more minority students. The racial mix of the charter school is of interest to the U.S. Justice Department, which monitors the school district under a desegregation order that dates to the 1970s.

Horvath said members of the charter board and the community association have not met since the potential suit was raised.

The community association members “hope to keep the lines of communication open,” Eaton said this week. “We continue to see a favorable resolution for all parties.”

“You’ve got two competing interests. I just wish they could sit down at the table and work that out,” Meekins said. “If we could be a part of that we will.”

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