Scuttle’s Island water park was sold as an economic boost for tourism in Columbia County.
It was promoted as the first multi-million dollar water park of its kind in this area.
Featuring 20 water slides, a lazy river, a water playground and a 55,000-square-foot wave pool, it was expected to bring almost 300,000 people to the county each summer.
When Lights of the South owner Benjamin Bell initially introduced his plans for the proposed $20 million water park near Grovetown last year, Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross described it as a “huge asset” that would only benefit the area.
That was then. This is now.
For the past several months, Bell said he has experienced nothing but constant roadblocks by the county in trying to get the water park approved and built.
“The water park is already so far down the road,” Bell said, shaking his head, clearly frustrated. “We’ve already got the slides coming. We’ve engineered everything. It is ready to build right now. And it should be opened this year in Columbia County, but it’s not.”
Some of the rezoning items the county and Bell have struggled with range from certain site plan requirements, the need for a comprehensive traffic impact study and the proposed paving of the property’s parking lots for the 113-acre site located along Louisville Road.
“We started the rezoning process back in September of last year when we announced the water park,” Bell said. “From then until March 1, we were still turning in document after document to the county to satisfy their requests. They said, ‘This project is too big. It is a regional project. People will be coming from 100 miles away.’ Which they will. I understand that, so we did more rezoning and I tried everything I could to work with them.” But in early March, less than a week before Bell’s scheduled March 5 meeting before the Columbia County Planning Commission, he received an email detailing all the additional requirements the county was requesting for the proposed water park.
It didn’t take Bell long to realize that he needed an extension in order to meet the county’s additional requests. Therefore, he asked that his zoning request before the planning commission be moved to April 2.
Meanwhile, there were some growing concerns about traffic congestion and infrastructure problems that the new water park might create among some of the residents living near the Lights of the South property.
About 75 residents attended the March 5 planning commission meeting to voice their concerns, even though Bell’s request that the item be tabled until April was approved.
After hearing some of the residents’ concerns, Bell insisted he was planning on constructing two turn lanes for the park’s entrance to help relieve the traffic congestion.
“We were proposing, because we know how bad the traffic gets during Lights of the South, to put a giant turn lane across the whole front of the property,” Bell said. “ I wanted to put two lanes into the property to get traffic off that one-lane road, at our own expense.”
As the April meeting quickly approached, Bell said he soon learned some of the required documents and plans that the county were requesting for the rezoning of the water park could take more than six months to receive.
“At that point, we thought it was best to totally withdraw our rezoning request,” Bell said. “We put in a request for the April 2 meeting stating, ‘Please withdraw our application for rezoning to allow us more time to finish these other huge requests that you have and then, when we get our information together, we will start all over with rezoning.’”
Even though it is not unusual for applicants to voluntarily withdraw a rezoning application, Bell said his request was flat out denied.
“We were shocked,” Bell said. “I can’t tell you how frustrating it’s been for us.”
At that point, Bell and he didn’t understand why the county was still moving forward with the rezoning request.
It wasn’t until he renewed the Lights of the South’s business license last week that he said things began to become much clearer.
Bell says he renewed the business license with the Columbia County Development Services Department on April 15, but received a strange phone call the very next day.
“On April 16, the county took the business license right back,” Bell said, chuckling. “They called me up and said, ‘You weren’t supposed to get that. We want you to return it and we’ll send you a refund.’”
According to county Development Services Director Paul Scarbary, his department decided to temporarily suspend the Lights of the South’s business license until after the rezoning issues were addressed by the Columbia County Board of Commissioners this past Tuesday.
But in Bell’s mind, the rezoning for the water park should not negatively impact the Lights of the South’s business license.
“We’ve been doing Lights of the South for more than a decade,” Bell said. “All we want to do is build a water park. We will go through the process. We’ll do what we have to do. But now, they are also attacking Lights of the South. That’s where it’s rubbing me the wrong way. Because I had to rezone for the water park, that also pulled Lights of the South into the picture.”
In essence, Bell felt like the county was trying to shut him completely down by also adding additional restrictions to Lights of the South.
“If you go to change the zoning on the property, that removes all of the things that were grandfathered in originally for Lights of the South,” Bell said, adding that the county has suggested that he must pave the gravel parking lots on the site, which will cost around $600,000. “Even though the gravel parking lots were approved in 2005, 2007, 2008, now they want to me to go back and pave those two parking lots. That is a tremendous cost for us.”
The only way that Bell said he could reasonably afford to spend that much to pave the parking lots is if he agreed to raise Light of the South’s ticket prices.
“Since we opened 10 years ago, children 3 and under have gotten in free,” Bell said. “The price for children 4 to 17 is $5.95 and adults are only $8.95. And I give out hundreds of free tickets each year. Honestly, it has never been about making money. Sure. We do okay, but it’s not like we are charging $20 a person or something. And I don’t want to.”
Bell said he simply wants to keep the tradition of Lights of the South going for future generations.
“All I’m asking is for the county to leave Lights of the South alone,” Bell said. “It’s rustic. We like it rustic. We have a gravel parking lot. We have old buildings. It is not Disney at all and we don’t want it to be. It has got just a little country charm. And we think people like the fact that it is so simple.”
When the Columbia County Board of Commissioners addressed the rezoning on Tuesday, both the county and Bell were singing a different tune.
Both parties had come to a compromise regarding the business license for the Lights of the South.
Basically, Bell agreed to comply with all requirements the county had listed, including electrical inspections and a traffic study, if the county allowed him to keep his gravel parking lot and not be required to pave it.
With those stipulations in place, the Columbia County Commission voted 4-0 in support of approving Bell’s request for the seasonal light display. Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross was absent from the meeting.
“Like every other business in Columbia County, no more or less, we will require the same stipulations for this business as any other in order to grant that rezoning and get an occupational license,” Columbia County Commissioner Trey Allen stated, adding that he believes the county and Bell have come to an understanding on all of the requirements. “I think it was a just a matter of miscommunication.”
Following the commission’s vote to approve the business license for Lights of the South, Bell was overjoyed.
“That’s what I needed,” Bell said, as he thanked more than 50 supporters who attended the commission meeting in favor of Lights of the South’s license. “I was assured earlier that the paved parking would not be an issue. Now that we have it on record that the staff is going to approve my gravel parking lots, then I’m happy. That’s all I needed.”
As for Bell’s plans for a $20 million water park, he insists that he’s not putting that dream on the shelf.
Instead, Bell has decided to completely switch gears and relocate his proposed water park to another neighboring county that isn’t fighting him at every turn, he said.
“Columbia County is not going to stop us. We are building the water park,” Bell said. “We may not be able to build it right on the Lights of the South property, but we are definitely building that water park within a few miles from here. We already have another county who is actually extremely nice to us and hasn’t slammed every door in our faces.”
Bell said he couldn’t publicly identify the neighboring county yet because he didn’t want property prices in the area to all of a sudden increase before he completes the purchase of about 100 acres for the water park.
But he assures the public that it will be the perfect location for Scuttle’s Island.
“In fact, the joke is, this new county said if we have to do a traffic study, they’ll actually pay for it. That’s straight from the lips of another county,” Bell said, laughing. “That’s the difference in the cooperation we are getting with this new county compared to Columbia County. This new county is going to help us anyway it can.”
The difference is night and day, Bell said.
In fact, he was stunned by the reaction of a former Columbia County commissioner to the proposed water project.
“He said, ‘No one is coming to that water park,’” Bell said. “That is the kind of junk we have heard. We thought we would have been welcomed with open arms in Columbia County, but it’s been the opposite.”
If Columbia County doesn’t want the water park, Bell said he is more than happy to take the business elsewhere.
“I couldn’t believe one county official, when we were in a meeting with him a few weeks ago in Columbia County,” Bell said. “We were telling him about the number of jobs the water park would bring to the area. He said, ‘That is only seasonal jobs for high school seniors and college kids. That really doesn’t impact employment in Columbia County.’”
Bell couldn’t help but shake his head and laugh at the county official.
“I said, ‘It’s summer work for 114 kids that may not have any other way to make money to go back to college,’” Bell said. “I would have loved to have had a job like that when I was younger. But if they don’t want those jobs, I know of another county that is more than happy to have them.”
Purchasing more property and moving the water park out of Columbia County was never part of the original plan, Bell said, but it is clear that’s the best option for all the parties involved.
“Sure, I have to buy another 100 acres somewhere else,” Bell said. “It’s an expense I wasn’t counting on, but I’m willing to do it because it’s clear, somebody in Columbia County doesn’t want us here. And that’s fine. We will take the water park to another county that is more than happy to have us. One that wants to work with us, not against us. It’s that simple.”