Now that the self-congratulatory applause has faded, we must take a skeptical view of the settlement of the lawsuit between Columbia County and the developers of Marshall Square.
Certainly, both sides seem happy with the outcome: Columbia County will pay $6.25 million for 26 acres of the 57-acre site, and likely will spend another $2.5 million to build a road through the land. The settlement's timing rescues the developers, who were facing a Tuesday due date on a $7.5 million loan for the stalled project.
It also ends the Marshall family's $57 million lawsuit against the county, initiated when county officials slashed the number of apartments that could be built at the site. As part of the settlement, there can be no residential development on the land without mutual agreement.
That was a prime objective for commissioners. Even if the county had won the lawsuit, the existing zoning for the project would have allowed apartments, though at a lower density than the developers wanted. Now there won't be any.
Is that what this really boils down to, then - spending upwards of $8 million of taxpayers' money just to fend off some rental residences?
Sure, there's now no danger of developers winning a big payout from the full size of the lawsuit, but that outcome was already in the cards: Their main attorney made a $1,000 campaign donation to the re-election campaign of commission Chairman Ron Cross, and ads listed the judge hearing the case, Carlisle Overstreet, among Cross' supporters. Both sides clearly had kissed and made up long before last week's conveniently timed announcement.
None of this is to say the deal is all bad: The developers get the creditors off their backs and a fresh start. The county gets valuable land at a cut rate, and keeps apartments out.
What's impossible to shake is the perception that the government used its authority to stall and ultimately devalue a private development, and then snapped up some of its assets at the resulting bargain price.
We didn't like it when the feds took over General Motors. This doesn't feel much better.
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