'No' appropriate answer to Pepper Hall proposal

info@islandpacket.comSeptember 14, 2012 

Beaufort County was right to say no to a "best and final offer" from the owners of 142 acres at Pepper Hall Plantation on the banks of the Okatie River.

The price was too high, the number of acres to be protected too low and development plans too opaque to say yes.

Graves family members offered to sell 18 acres and protect from development another 10 acres for the price of $10.5 million. The county's appraisal for all 142 acres came in at $13.5 million. That's a gap too big to ignore.

The owners also wanted the county to rezone some of the property to allow commercial development, including big-box stores. And they wanted the county to sign a development agreement for another part of the tract, while saying no development plans were in place.

That's a recipe for future trouble.

Buying into a deal without specific details is risky for the county and particularly risky for a river already impaired by the level of development in its watershed.

The county's attorney appropriately advised the council not to accept a sale with conditions attached. A sale and a rezoning should be two separate discussions.

"I have instructed council that purchase of the property has to stand on its own, separate and apart from any zoning issues, and vice versa," Josh Gruber said. "We only look at one or the other at any given time."

Under current zoning, up to 57 homes and 5,000 square feet of commercial space could be built. A rezoning request earlier this year called for more than 400 houses and 1.4 million square feet of commercial space. Council said no to that in April.

The county must be careful about what development it allows in that area. The Okatie has been closed to shellfish harvesting since 1995.

State and federal officials have studied the levels of pollutants going in the river to determine the maximum amounts it can handle and stay healthy. Results show that pollutants need to be reduced up to 50 percent in the upper reaches of the Okatie watershed.

Since 2001, the county has spent nearly $22 million to buy land or development rights involving more than 330 acres in the Okatie watershed. That includes a conservation easement on 17 acres at Pepper Hall from another Graves family member. It expects to purchase another 20 acres for $2.9 million before the year ends.

Although the Graveses' proposal was described as a "best and final offer," we hope discussions about purchasing or protecting the property and the river aren't over.

Please keep the door open. Too much is at stake, including a public investment now approaching $25 million.

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