AIKEN — Project Jackson is alive for at least another week.
South Carolina Circuit Judge J. Ernest Kinard Jr. told both parties battling over the validity of a tax district created to fund the $144 million project that he won’t make a ruling until at least Thursday.
Resident Stephen Donohue is challenging North Augusta City Council’s claim that the area for the development is blighted, thus qualifying it to become a Tax Increment Financing District.
The sides exchanged blows during Friday’s hearing for nearly eight hours.
Donohue’s suit contests that the council failed to prove blight and declining property values within the TIF district, adding that findings detailed in the city’s redevelopment plan were made when the ordinance was originally passed in 1996.
A study submitted to City Council listed 16 sites that showed signs of blight. Five of the listings were within the TIF district; three were in Belvedere.
The city countered with photos and hometown knowledge. Attorney Belton Zeigler argued that City Council, made up of many lifelong residents, was aware of property values over the years.
During his testimony, Donohue also found fault with executive sessions by council members that he said were meant to hide details of the project.
“It bothered me … because instead of operating a government in the sunshine they were wanting it as opaque as possible,” said Donohue, who lives in the River Club subdivision that adjoins the development site.
Zeigler said the city followed open records protocols when amending the ordinance.
North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones insisted that no votes regarding Project Jackson were made behind closed doors despite a majority of the executive sessions conducted last year involving the project. City Administrator Todd Glover echoed Jones’ statements during his testimony.
Jones acknowledged the desire to develop North Augusta’s riverfront had existed since the early 1990s, long before the development of the River Club subdivision. He said the blighted areas, which are mostly on the riverfront, have remained virtually untouched since then.
“We’re trying to complete what we set out to do,” he said.
The desire to create a town center on the riverfront is one of the most appealing aspects of Project Jackson, Glover said.
Donohue said the project, which would include a minor league baseball stadium, resort-type hotel, restaurants, office and retail space, would create an intolerable amount of noise and light pollution in his neighborhood. The proposed stadium site rests about 700 feet from the subdivision’s nearest home.
Zeigler argued that people haven’t yet been turned off to the idea of moving into the subdivision, which is bound by noisy railroad tracks to the south, Georgia Avenue to the north and the Savannah River to the south. Two new homes are being constructed in the neighborhood.
Donohue attorney J.D. Mosteller asked that Kinard declare the ordinance invalid. Zeigler asked the judge to put his confidence in the City Council.
Kinard asked both sides to submit proposals on what the ruling should be by Wednesday at the latest. He likely will issue a judgment Thursday. Should there be any delay, both sides could have to wait until September for an order to be signed.