Beaufort County residents have long recognized the value of preserving and protecting the natural resources that attracted many of them to the area and keep many of them here.
The land-buying and conservation programs of the county and the Town of Hilton Head Island have proved well worth the investment we have made. In addition to the natural resources these programs have protected, they have brought us recreational parks and community gathering places.
County officials will consider whether to ask voters in 2012 to approve more borrowing for the program. They backed off from doing it in 2010, worried the bad economy and the prospect of a tax rate increase would result in a "no" vote. And with money still in the bank from the 2006 referendum borrowing, they didn't think it was worth risking a negative result.
It might not be an easy sell next year, but it's certainly worth the effort. The long-term costs of not protecting vital assets may be hidden today, but they are there. We need look only at the time and money the town of Bluffton and the county are spending to try to correct the damage done to the May River as a result of damaging stormwater runoff and changing runoff patterns from new development over the past decade.
Putting our collective money where our mouth is would be the best way to manage development in the coming years. That should be coupled with a strong, cohesive plan from municipalities and counties about where and how that development should occur.
We sometimes are our own worst enemy when it comes to protecting our resources. We hand out permits with one hand, and buy land with the other. Witness what has occurred in the Okatie River watershed where the county has spent millions of dollars to restore and protect its headwaters, but potentially damaging development is approved by neighboring municipalities.
Another important component of this program is buying development rights through conservation easements. This allows property to stay in private hands by removing monetary pressures to develop. Tax benefits accrue to the owner, but the benefits of clean waterways and a beautiful landscape accrue to us all.
One of the jobs for the county's Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Board in the coming year is to connect area residents in a tangible way with the program's benefits. At its recent retreat, the board talked about opening more land to the public. Seven properties totaling about 170 acres have been designated as parks and opened to the public. The county has purchased about 17,500 acres to date; opportunities for more and better public use surely abound.
The board and the staff are to sort the remaining properties into several categories:
Helping people to understand how they benefit from the program and looking for opportunities to make the land purchased more accessible would go a long way toward ensuring success in a 2012 referendum. It's an important step to take even if we never borrow another dollar or buy another acre.
The land conservation program is a long-term investment for our community. To make that strategy work, we must be able to keep up with the market in terms of resources and ability to buy.