Beaufort County may use public funds to fix private roads. Here’s why it’s considering it

Private roads may become eligible for improvements from the county, under limited circumstances.

The Beaufort County Council is considering an ordinance that would allow private roads to be worked on by the county. The chief motivator for the ordinance is to improve access for emergency service vehicles across the county.

In order for a private road to qualify for public work it has to be the only access for one or more residences — one of which must be a primary residence — and EMS, sheriff’s department and fire department vehicles or other county vehicles must be unable to access at least one residence unless road scraping is performed.

The road work will be done on a one-time basis only and the Public Works Department will be limited to the minimum improvements that will allow for full and immediate access. Crusher run, gravel, pipe, or other materials will not be provided.

The ordinance passed at Monday’s Beaufort Council Council meeting on second reading with a vote of 7-4.

Voting in favor was York Glover, Joe Passiment, Larry McEllen, Paul Sommerville, Alice Howard, Gerald Dawson and Brian Flewelling. Voting “no” was Mark Lawson, Logan Cunningham, Stu Rodman and Chris Hervochon.

Those in favor emphasized that the ordinance would be to improve emergency situations and would help residents who can’t afford to fix the road themselves.

Beaufort County may authorize using public funds to fix private roads if an ordinance passes Monday.
Beaufort County may authorize using public funds to fix private roads if an ordinance passes Monday.

“I feel strongly that we don’t need to maintain these private roads on a regular basis,” said Dawson. “But when a situation arises where the access becomes inaccessible to emergency vehicles, then we need to do something to assist in that effort.”

Lawson, in voting against the ordinance, said it fails to define how much the county can spend on private roads and how often the county can perform the maintenance. Lawson also shared concern that the ordinance could be abused by people who could afford to fix the road themselves.

“Basically we’re telling people, ‘Don’t maintain your roads and we’re going to come fix them in an emergency,’” said Lawson. “The biggest reason that I’m opposed to this is because we should never ever spend public money on private roads, private anything.”

The ordinance shouldn’t be easy to abuse, County Administrator Eric Greenway said.

“It’s not like people can just call us up and say, ‘I want my road graded,’” said Greenway. “There’s a process and you all, if this goes forward, will have to trust that I or the county administrator at the place and the time will manage that effectively.”

Other council members took issue with the legality of public funds going to private roads.

“It’s a thorny issue and I support it in concept,” said Rodman. “However, it is a violation of the state constitution and I can’t bring myself to vote for anything that’s in violation of the state constitution.”

Glover felt that the ordinance should be passed, regardless of legality.

“I’m a native of South Carolina and if it wasn’t for civil disobedience, a lot of things would still be going on right now in terms of state law,” he said. “It’s always good to do the right thing and I think this statute does the right thing.”

Here’s when county funds can be used

Under the ordinance, the county administrator can also authorize the use of public resources in the following circumstances:

  • In the case of natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes or man-made disasters, such as explosions, fires and pollution

  • Access to roads leading to borrow pits purchased, donated or leased to the county for construction materials

  • To clean up, repair or resurface property that has been damaged or altered by the parking, storage or transporting of county equipment or materials

  • To settle or compromise litigation that is threatened or instituted because of some condition created by or for which the county is legally responsible or liable

  • For temporary detours or bypasses while county roads or bridges are being constructed, repaired, resurfaced or maintained

  • To aid municipalities, special purpose districts and special tax districts within Beaufort County in the construction, repair or maintenance of roadways or other projects located within municipal or district boundaries

  • To provide minimally necessary entrances and exits where the prevailing fire chief or EMS director of a district has made a recommendation where a public health emergency or an urgent medical need exists, making access to a roadway necessary

Excluding the above circumstances, no use of county equipment on private property will be permitted. Roads that lead to commercial property do not qualify for county work, the ordinance states.

The county has already identified 25 roads that need “immediate attention.”

Third and final reading of the ordinance will be at the Monday, Oct. 3, County Council meeting.