When the race resumes: Recession gives environment a break, but will protection continue when development picks up?

January 30, 2010 

Decades ago, Bluffton and Hilton Head Island were farming communities, where cows, not tourists, frequently waded into local waters, says Nancy Schilling of local environmental education group Friends of the Rivers.

Then came shopping centers and housing developments that changed the landscape of Beaufort County, and today those cows would likely step out of the water onto a dock or pavement.

Growth propelled the influx of jobs, gains in property tax revenue and a more diversified economy. But growth also forced the closings of popular waterways to protect residents and fishermen from contaminants like fecal coliform.

The recession has nearly halted the pace of development, allowing the county to consider how to manage growth better when it inevitably resumes, said Garrett Budds, director of the Beaufort office of the Coastal Conservation League.

“For the most part, what we’re hearing from public officials is that the flaws inherent in how we were growing were at least identified,” Budds said. “Recession or not, the pattern was unsustainable. ... It was a lot of disjointed growth.”

In many instances, the county has atoned for previous missteps, Budds said.

The County Council strengthened its stormwater runoff regulations, urged municipalities to toughen their own environmental controls and spent millions to buy land for conservation.

In addition, council Chairman Weston Newton wants to create a county-municipal office on water quality, and county administrator Gary Kubic plans to have a Natural Resources Division.

What remains to be seen, however, is how officials will enforce environmental protections when the economy rebounds and development returns.

“I’m not glad to see a slowdown,” Friends of the Rivers’ Schilling said. “But at least we’re looking forward and saying maybe we didn’t use the best methods, maybe we didn’t have all the science we needed at that time. It’s good to see that government is actually rolling with the times.”

The times also might bring a new way of looking at the environment and development — not as competing goals but as complementary elements that must remain in balance.

“You need growth,” said Doug Woodward, who owns a home on Hilton Head and is research director for the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. “You need to protect the natural environment, too. As the economy grows and diversifies, you don’t want to lose it. What creates higher value and what makes a place attractive to new business is having something unique, whether in tourism or anything else. ... The environment is what can attract the growth if it’s done in the right way.” Okatie Crossings: Study in contrasts

Some developers and lawmakers argue, however, that times are hard on the wallet — and it’s difficult to reconcile economic and environmental concerns.

Jasper County and Hardeeville officials say they want The Sembler Co. of Atlanta to build a proposed 280-acre, 1.5-million-square-foot shopping center near the intersection of U.S. 278 and S.C. 170. The county and city believe Okatie Crossings, which would straddle the Beaufort-Jasper county line, would bring about 2,500 jobs.

“The outdoor shopping complex will be unique to anything else within several hundred miles,” Hardeeville Mayor Bronco Bostick wrote in a letter to The Beaufort Gazette and Island Packet. “It will draw millions of new sales tax dollars into our region, with a trading area extending from Atlanta, south to Jacksonville and north to Charleston and Columbia.”

Several Beaufort County officials oppose Okatie Crossings, however. Among their concerns is the impact it could have on the nearby sensitive headwaters of the Okatie River.

The company responds that its stormwater management plan will meet Beaufort County’s new regulations and will result in less freshwater runoff — which reduces salinity and saltwater bodies’ ability to cleanse themselves — than occurs now.

Also at issue is proposed state legislation that would give the company a multimillion-dollar sales-tax break for several years. Beaufort County Council members approved a resolution opposing that proposal, but Sembler president Jeff Fuqua insists the incentive is necessary for the project to proceed.

The Jasper County Council is scheduled to adopt a resolution today that will support Sembler’s quest for incentives.


CAN THEY ALL GET ALONG?
The contention between officials in Beaufort and Jasper counties about Okatie Crossings emphasizes the need for regional cooperation on environmental issues, some lawmakers say.

In Jasper County, where some 80,000 homes and 45 million square feet of commercial space have been approved but not yet built, officials say they also are concerned about maintaining water quality.

Rivers are widely considered the lifeblood of the Lowcountry — key to the fishing and oyster industry that has defined the area for decades, and a major attraction for tourists.

Dave Jirousek, Jasper County planning director, said he thinks it will take coordination between Lowcountry municipalities to toughen stormwater regulations.

“As water-quality issues expand beyond jurisdictional limits, it is an issue to address at a regional scale,” Jirousek said.

The message was echoed Dec. 14 when the Beaufort County Council signed a joint statement with Bluffton, committing both governments to better manage waterways.

“This resolution is ... a demonstration of intergovernmental cooperation,” said County Council Chairman Newton.

Councilman Jerry Stewart cast the lone dissenting vote, however, citing a perception that Bluffton officials — attempting to annex 40 acres at the intersection of U.S. 278 and S.C. 170 near the headwaters of the Okatie River — did not share the same intentions.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Stewart said. “Since this process has begun, we now have numerous annexation efforts being taken by the town of Bluffton. The county has been going in the opposite direction. All of these things are inconsistent with what we’re trying to do.

“If we do not stand up at some point and say enough is enough, when will we do it?

“It’s time. It’s time that we get reciprocal agreement from the other side.”

Bluffton officials, however, maintain their commitment to the health of local rivers is as high as it’s ever been. At a retreat held last month, Town Council members selected the May River as their top priority. Controlling stormwater

County stormwater manager Dan Ahern has said water quality was the goal for developing a tougher stormwater ordinance. The County Council adopted the measure in October with the hope that municipal officials would follow suit.

Bluffton approved a version of the county’s new ordinance, but the city of Beaufort and town of Port Royal are not convinced stricter stormwater rules will work for them.

The new measures require developers to ensure stormwater runoff from their properties does not exceed the amount that ran off before construction.

But a one-size-fits-all policy is not the answer to the stormwater problems, Beaufort and Port Royal officials said.

The two municipalities argue regulations to protect their waterways from excessive runoff should factor in the municipalities’ existing density.

“This new (county) ordinance might tip the scales and discourage development in more urban areas when it’s a heck of a lot less expensive to build in a green field, open space,” Port Royal town manager Van Willis said in December. “We’re trying to take a little more thoughtful look at the issues.”

Newton said he is open to hearing the ideas the city and town propose.

“I think we should set the bar as high as we can in protecting our waterways,” Newton said. “If the municipalities can identify a way that is more protective, then we ought to look at it.”

The Town of Hilton Head Island, for example, has used runoff from Hilton Head Plantation and surrounding areas at Jarvis Creek Park, she said. The runoff flows into the lake at the park, then is filtered in nearby wetlands before running into Jarvis Creek.

“Water quality protection comes first and foremost from smart land-use planning,” Budds said. “That’s the first hurdle you should be crossing.”

A return to the rapid pace of development, however, would be a step in the wrong direction, he said. “At maximum build-out, we would have such a riddled landscape that our rivers would not be able to cope,” Budds said. “We don’t have a duty just to protect them. We have a duty to repair the impaired ones.”


CONSERVING LAND
Another way the county is controlling development is by preserving thousands of acres it has purchased through its Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program.

In 2000 and again in 2006, voters approved a total of $90 million for the program. The county contracts with Conservation Consulting Co. of Hilton Head Island to negotiate purchases.

“We are not anti-development,” said Glenn Stanford, the company’s president. “Development and conservation can coexist.”

The key, he said, is keeping development out of areas that have a high conservation value because of their proximity to sensitive local waterways or wildlife habitats.

“We now have to buy out open space along watersheds,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort. “That’s something that the people of Beaufort County have always been ready to do.”

The program seized on sliding property values to snap up more land recently, including 12 acres last week near the headwaters of the Okatie River.

The recession depressed land values by 25 percent to 30 percent countywide, Stanford said.

That allowed the lands-preservation program and the Beaufort County Open Land Trust to find good deals on acreage — putting them into a good position to handle the higher prices expected when the economy bounces back.

“I think we’re proud of what we’ve achieved,” Stanford said, adding with a chuckle, “You always wish you could do more, but there’s only so much time in the day.”

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