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Fantasy 5 - 06/23/2015

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S.C. Supreme Court: Project Jackson upheld, open-meeting laws violated by city officials

The South Carolina Supreme Court on June 17 upheld the validity of a North Augusta ordinance being used to finance a new stadium for the Augusta GreenJackets.

The court determined, however, that North Augusta officials violated open-meetings laws by failing to announce the specific purpose of closed-door meetings they held to discuss the development.

The 5-0 ruling in effect ends 18 months of litigation challenging North Augusta’s $183 million Project Jackson near the Hammond’s Ferry neighborhood with a baseball park overlooking the Savannah River, a hotel, conference center, and retail, living and office space.

“Project Jackson can move forward and will move forward,” said Belton Zeigler, a Columbia attorney who represented North Augusta during the litigation. “The obstacles are cleared out of the way.”

Jeff Eiseman, president of the Green-Jackets and team owner Agon Sports and Entertainment, said the ruling allows the team to open its 2017 season in the North Augusta stadium. The stadium was planned for the 2015 season when the city announced plans in late 2012.

“I’ve been waiting for this day for a while,” Eiseman said. “We have bigger days ahead of us. There’s still a lot more to do.”

North Augusta Administrator Todd Glover said work will begin to finalize contracts with groups that will occupy the development but were reluctant to sign agreements with litigation pending. Construction groundbreaking isn’t scheduled but the stadium is on track for the 2017 season, he said.

North Augusta homeowner Stephen Donohue sued the city in December 2013, claiming the development area did not have blighted property required to amend a Tax Increment Financing District created in 1996. He also said the North Augusta City Council violated the Freedom of Information Act by holding executive sessions without disclosing to taxpayers that council members were discussing Project
Jackson.

“The court said the city did exactly what the statute required to amend the TIF plan,” Zeigler said. “There were no defects in that process at all.”

The Supreme Court’s opinion affirmed the August 2014 ruling by South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Ernest Kinard on the TIF District but reversed his decision that North Augusta complied with FOIA. Donohue appealed Kinard’s ruling, and the Supreme Court agreed to bypass the Court of Appeals to hear the case May 5.

In an e-mail, Donohue applauded the court’s decision to advance government transparency regarding closed door meetings but said upholding the TIF district allows Project Jackson to disturb the riverfront and city’s quality-of-life.

“While we were disappointed in the decision on TIF and thought it merited a more thorough analysis than a few pages, suffice it to say that many people and organizations are committed to fighting this ill-conceived idea of a stadium in the midst of one of the most beautiful ecological areas in the CSRA,” he said.

“This transfer of taxes to a corporate developer constitutes crony capitalism at its worst, which will significantly degrade the quality of life of all those who chose to invest their hard-earned money in riverside neighborhoods.”

In 11 executive sessions challenged by Donohue, the city council announced they were entering to discuss a “contractual matter,” according to the opinion.

Contractual matters are defined as a “specific purpose” that municipalities can use to hold closed meetings but the statue requires more description when the subject involves location, expansion or services for businesses or industries that will serve the public, the opinion says.

Zeigler said North Augusta followed the FOIA as the city and some other municipalities interpret the law. The court’s opinion called for more specific descriptions that could change how governments conduct business, although it’s not clear how much disclosure must be given, he said.

“FOIA is always a balance between abilities of governments to operate with a certain amount of privacy for specific areas and transparency for the public. The court is saying they want to push that balance more toward transparency,” he said.

The FOIA violation does not invalidate the funding ordinance because the executive sessions applied to contract negotiations with Augusta GreenJackets owners and project developers, Zeigler said.

The Supreme Court required North Augusta to pay attorney fees and costs for the portion of litigation relating to FOIA violations only.

Zeigler said the amount has not been determined but the case centered more on the TIF district than FOIA.

North Augusta has spent about $250,000 on legal fees for the case, Glover said. Additionally, construction costs increased during the lengthy litigation likely costing the city more to complete the project, he said.

The GreenJackets have not signed a contract with North Augusta, Eiseman said. Still, the team is committed to the project and eager to play in the riverfront stadium, he said.

North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones maintains the development isn’t a done deal and naysayers of the project hold strong to their disdain for the plans.

“In order for this to work financially, the private sector is going to have to build $125 million worth of improvements,” Jones said.

Jones said groundbreaking has not been scheduled, and the city won’t proceed until it’s assured that private developers can come through on their portion of the deal.

“The city council is going to have a comfort level it will all work,” Jones said.

Glover said the private investment includes $125 million for a hotel, shops, restaurants and living space. The city will cover $58 million for a stadium, conference center, parking decks, infrastructure and riverfront park between the Hammond’s Ferry and River Club neighborhoods.

The city amended a Tax Incre­ment Financing District created in 1996 to repay bonds it plans to issue for Project Jackson. The model allows North Augusta to collect tax revenue on the incremental difference between the district’s rising property values and values for Aiken County, which would remain frozen at 1996 levels for 30 years.

Scott Slatton, a legislative and public policy advocate for the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said residents have no additional tax burden if they are outside the TIF district. Commercial properties within the district pay more in property taxes as the area grows, but they benefit from the increase in business, he said.

“Rather than having to raise taxes to generate new revenue, the new development is raising the new revenue,” Slatton said.

Other sources of revenue for the project include hospitality tax money, lease payments from the team and parking revenue.

Scott Gudith, who like Donahue lives in the upscale, riverfront River Club neighborhood, has opposed the project since it was announced in late 2012. He thinks a baseball stadium will destroy the quiet life he and his wife, Regina Reddy, sought when they moved to North Augusta fromAtlanta.

Gudith already moved once when Augusta considered building a Green­Jackets stadium on the former Georgia Golf Hall of Fame Botanical Gardens, which was directly across the Savannah River from his house. When that fell through, they settled on the River Club golf course.

Gudith has shown his house to six potential buyers in the past three years. He wants to move but fears the development has turned people away from the area and driven down home values.

City leaders say those who oppose Project Jackson are vocal but few and do not represent the majority of city residents excited about new restaurants, shops and ball games.

“I’ve been surprised by the number of e-mails I’ve gotten and people on the street that have gotten so excited,” Jones said.

City Councilman Fletcher Dickert said the residents he represents are eager for North Augusta’s growth.

“The overwhelming majority of the community is for and behind it. From the people I interact with, it’s easily 9-to-1,” he said.

When Curtis Holmes and his family moved to Hammond’s Ferry four years ago, he didn’t expect a baseball stadium would be built. He doesn’t mind it if the neighborhood develops more amenities surrounding it.

“The whole vision of Hammond’s Ferry was to have a wide range of development around single-family homes, town homes, shops and restaurants,” Holmes said. “As long as they do it right, I’m OK with it.”

Categories: Local

S.C. Supreme Court: Project Jackson upheld, open-meeting laws violated by city officials

The South Carolina Supreme Court on June 17 upheld the validity of a North Augusta ordinance being used to finance a new stadium for the Augusta GreenJackets.

The court determined, however, that North Augusta officials violated open-meetings laws by failing to announce the specific purpose of closed-door meetings they held to discuss the development.

The 5-0 ruling in effect ends 18 months of litigation challenging North Augusta’s $183 million Project Jackson near the Hammond’s Ferry neighborhood with a baseball park overlooking the Savannah River, a hotel, conference center, and retail, living and office space.

“Project Jackson can move forward and will move forward,” said Belton Zeigler, a Columbia attorney who represented North Augusta during the litigation. “The obstacles are cleared out of the way.”

Jeff Eiseman, president of the Green-Jackets and team owner Agon Sports and Entertainment, said the ruling allows the team to open its 2017 season in the North Augusta stadium. The stadium was planned for the 2015 season when the city announced plans in late 2012.

“I’ve been waiting for this day for a while,” Eiseman said. “We have bigger days ahead of us. There’s still a lot more to do.”

North Augusta Administrator Todd Glover said work will begin to finalize contracts with groups that will occupy the development but were reluctant to sign agreements with litigation pending. Construction groundbreaking isn’t scheduled but the stadium is on track for the 2017 season, he said.

North Augusta homeowner Stephen Donohue sued the city in December 2013, claiming the development area did not have blighted property required to amend a Tax Increment Financing District created in 1996. He also said the North Augusta City Council violated the Freedom of Information Act by holding executive sessions without disclosing to taxpayers that council members were discussing Project
Jackson.

“The court said the city did exactly what the statute required to amend the TIF plan,” Zeigler said. “There were no defects in that process at all.”

The Supreme Court’s opinion affirmed the August 2014 ruling by South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Ernest Kinard on the TIF District but reversed his decision that North Augusta complied with FOIA. Donohue appealed Kinard’s ruling, and the Supreme Court agreed to bypass the Court of Appeals to hear the case May 5.

In an e-mail, Donohue applauded the court’s decision to advance government transparency regarding closed door meetings but said upholding the TIF district allows Project Jackson to disturb the riverfront and city’s quality-of-life.

“While we were disappointed in the decision on TIF and thought it merited a more thorough analysis than a few pages, suffice it to say that many people and organizations are committed to fighting this ill-conceived idea of a stadium in the midst of one of the most beautiful ecological areas in the CSRA,” he said.

“This transfer of taxes to a corporate developer constitutes crony capitalism at its worst, which will significantly degrade the quality of life of all those who chose to invest their hard-earned money in riverside neighborhoods.”

In 11 executive sessions challenged by Donohue, the city council announced they were entering to discuss a “contractual matter,” according to the opinion.

Contractual matters are defined as a “specific purpose” that municipalities can use to hold closed meetings but the statue requires more description when the subject involves location, expansion or services for businesses or industries that will serve the public, the opinion says.

Zeigler said North Augusta followed the FOIA as the city and some other municipalities interpret the law. The court’s opinion called for more specific descriptions that could change how governments conduct business, although it’s not clear how much disclosure must be given, he said.

“FOIA is always a balance between abilities of governments to operate with a certain amount of privacy for specific areas and transparency for the public. The court is saying they want to push that balance more toward transparency,” he said.

The FOIA violation does not invalidate the funding ordinance because the executive sessions applied to contract negotiations with Augusta GreenJackets owners and project developers, Zeigler said.

The Supreme Court required North Augusta to pay attorney fees and costs for the portion of litigation relating to FOIA violations only.

Zeigler said the amount has not been determined but the case centered more on the TIF district than FOIA.

North Augusta has spent about $250,000 on legal fees for the case, Glover said. Additionally, construction costs increased during the lengthy litigation likely costing the city more to complete the project, he said.

The GreenJackets have not signed a contract with North Augusta, Eiseman said. Still, the team is committed to the project and eager to play in the riverfront stadium, he said.

North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones maintains the development isn’t a done deal and naysayers of the project hold strong to their disdain for the plans.

“In order for this to work financially, the private sector is going to have to build $125 million worth of improvements,” Jones said.

Jones said groundbreaking has not been scheduled, and the city won’t proceed until it’s assured that private developers can come through on their portion of the deal.

“The city council is going to have a comfort level it will all work,” Jones said.

Glover said the private investment includes $125 million for a hotel, shops, restaurants and living space. The city will cover $58 million for a stadium, conference center, parking decks, infrastructure and riverfront park between the Hammond’s Ferry and River Club neighborhoods.

The city amended a Tax Incre­ment Financing District created in 1996 to repay bonds it plans to issue for Project Jackson. The model allows North Augusta to collect tax revenue on the incremental difference between the district’s rising property values and values for Aiken County, which would remain frozen at 1996 levels for 30 years.

Scott Slatton, a legislative and public policy advocate for the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said residents have no additional tax burden if they are outside the TIF district. Commercial properties within the district pay more in property taxes as the area grows, but they benefit from the increase in business, he said.

“Rather than having to raise taxes to generate new revenue, the new development is raising the new revenue,” Slatton said.

Other sources of revenue for the project include hospitality tax money, lease payments from the team and parking revenue.

Scott Gudith, who like Donahue lives in the upscale, riverfront River Club neighborhood, has opposed the project since it was announced in late 2012. He thinks a baseball stadium will destroy the quiet life he and his wife, Regina Reddy, sought when they moved to North Augusta fromAtlanta.

Gudith already moved once when Augusta considered building a Green­Jackets stadium on the former Georgia Golf Hall of Fame Botanical Gardens, which was directly across the Savannah River from his house. When that fell through, they settled on the River Club golf course.

Gudith has shown his house to six potential buyers in the past three years. He wants to move but fears the development has turned people away from the area and driven down home values.

City leaders say those who oppose Project Jackson are vocal but few and do not represent the majority of city residents excited about new restaurants, shops and ball games.

“I’ve been surprised by the number of e-mails I’ve gotten and people on the street that have gotten so excited,” Jones said.

City Councilman Fletcher Dickert said the residents he represents are eager for North Augusta’s growth.

“The overwhelming majority of the community is for and behind it. From the people I interact with, it’s easily 9-to-1,” he said.

When Curtis Holmes and his family moved to Hammond’s Ferry four years ago, he didn’t expect a baseball stadium would be built. He doesn’t mind it if the neighborhood develops more amenities surrounding it.

“The whole vision of Hammond’s Ferry was to have a wide range of development around single-family homes, town homes, shops and restaurants,” Holmes said. “As long as they do it right, I’m OK with it.”

Categories: Local

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Georgia Lottery - Tue, 6/23/2015 12:00 AM
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Categories: Local

Fantasy 5 - 06/22/2015

Georgia Lottery - Tue, 6/23/2015 12:00 AM
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Categories: Local

North Augusta police say man fatally shot by wife

Latest News from North Augusta Today - Tue, 4/8/2014 5:06 PM

Police said a woman shot her husband in their North Augusta Gardens apartment while their four small children were home.

North Augusta Public Safety officers were called to Apartment 1701 at the Marion Avenue complex around 10:30 a.m. and discovered Dakota Cook, 21, with a single gunshot wound to the head. He was transported to Georgia Regents Medical Center where he died from his injuries, Coroner Tim Carlton said in a news release.

Police have charged his wife of four years, 20-year-old Terry Cook, with murder. According to a news release, the shooting appears to be the result of an ongoing domestic dispute.

The couple’s four children, ages 4 months, 1, 3 and 4, were at home at the time of the shooting but were not injured, Lt. Tim Thornton said. The children are in the custody of their grandparents.

Reach Bianca Cain Johnson at

bianca.johnson@augustachronicle.com.

Categories: Local

Local Easter Egg Hunts: Send in your event

Latest News from North Augusta Today - Tue, 4/8/2014 1:36 PM

Easter is right around the corner and we’re compiling a list of Easter egg hunts in North Augusta and Belvedere. If your church, organization or business is having an Easter egg hunt, please send details to nikasha.dicks@northaugustatoday.com.

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