Council to vote Monday on Graves tract rezoning issue

achristnovich@beaufortgazette.comApril 7, 2012 

Robert Graves drives across land just north of U.S. 278 that has been in his family for more than 130 years.

He points nostalgically to the house where he was born and the dirt road where he raced horses as a boy.

Now, at 73, he still comes to the property to ride a few days a week.

But, despite the family's strong ties to the land, it has become too valuable to remain simply animal pastures, Graves said.

As he sat on a chestnut-colored horse, Graves looked around at the covered riding arena and imagined one day it might be an open-air market.

As he drove his heavy-duty pickup through the property, he swept his arm along a lagoon built by his father more than 50 years ago and described how he thinks a plaza with quaint shops and restaurants could rise there.

Graves and two of his cousins, John and Paul, are asking Beaufort County Council to rezone part of the land -- a 142-acre tract -- so that those ideas and others could become a reality.

Their ambitions, however, have been curtailed by what bounds their property to the west -- a three-quarter-mile stretch of environmentally sensitive shoreline along the Okatie River.

Beaufort County officials say rezoning the property would invite construction that would further degrade the river.

The family counters that it's unfair to preserve the river at their expense, especially as other development approved by the county pops up all around them.

"Robert and his cousins are being held to a higher standard than other folks that have recently developed in the area," said Milt Rhodes, a former Beaufort County planner hired by the family.

County Council will vote Monday on a proposal to rezone the tract from rural and rural transitional overlay to commercial and suburban districts. County staff and the council's Natural Resources Committee have recommended the request be denied.

Rhodes said the 142-acre plot became an "island of underdevelopment in a sea of development" starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The land's southernmost border is U.S. 278. Berkeley Hall runs along the tract's eastern side; Sun City Hilton Head is across the Okatie, to the west; and the Island West golf course and three car dealerships are to the south.

Most of the land now occupied by residential developments was once owned by International Paper. But the Graves family owned some of it, including parcels now occupied by Stokes Brown Toyota, Hilton Head Island Honda, Mercedes Benz of Hilton Head and the Island West golf course and part of its neighborhood, according to the Beaufort County Register of Deeds.

Attempts to determine the sale price of the parcels were unsuccessful Saturday because the property records section of the Register of Deeds web site was down for maintenance.

Council Vice Chairman Paul Sommerville said that while he sympathizes with the family, the health of the Okatie headwaters will likely take precedence when he casts his vote.

"The Graves have always been excellent stewards of the river," he said. "But I can't imagine anyone -- and I mean anyone -- asking for an upzoning of that magnitude on the headwaters of the Okatie River."

The river was designated as impaired and closed to shell fishing in 1995 by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Further development -- and the runoff that accompanies it -- could lead to further degradation, county staff and others have asserted.

Current zoning allows construction of as many as 57 houses and 5,000 square feet of commercial space. The proposed rezoning would loosen restrictions on density and impervious surfaces, allowing as many as 428 houses and 1.4 million square feet of office space, according to the county staff.

As much as half of the land could be covered in impervious surfaces -- sidewalks and parking lots, for example -- according to an estimate presented to the Natural Resources Committee by the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. Such surfaces increase pollutants in water because they covers the soil that naturally filters out pollutants, according the DHEC. Those estimates assume too much, Jim Scheider, Graves' attorney, argues.

"By rezoning, you're not giving tacit approval to just build anything within that category of zoning," he said. "You still have to come in and justify the various uses."

Both the county and the family have said they are willing to compromise, but the parties aren't in negotiations.Sommerville said talks could not begin until the current proposal is voted on or withdrawn.The family discussed selling the land to the county's Open Land Trust in July but balked because they thought the property appraisal was too low.

The county has asked the family to submit a master plan or a planned unit development proposal as part of the rezoning request; the Graves have refused, arguing that doing so would restrict the use of their land.

In any case, specific plans aren't required for a rezoning application, Scheider said. Robert Graves said he's open to an agreement that would bar big-box stores or car dealerships if a fair compromise with the county can be reached.

"If they have those (concerns), it doesn't offend me to have a discussion to agree what not to do," he said. "I have confidence and faith that our elected officials will be fair in the end."

Follow Anne Christnovich on Twitter at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.

Related content

Graves family again brings rezoning proposal to Beaufort County, Jan. 24, 2012

Commission ties on rezoning near Okatie River, Feb. 6, 2012

Graves family frustrated by county red tape on rezoning Bluffton property, Feb. 4, 2012

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