Conservation program merits voters' support

info@islandpacket.comNovember 2, 2012 

Beaufort County's greatest treasures lie in its scenic vistas and bountiful waterways.

Preserving and protecting the natural resources that brought and keep many of us here is a sound investment in our quality of life and in our economy.

On Tuesday, Beaufort County will ask to borrow up to $25 million to support its continuing conservation efforts. We urge voters to say "yes."

County officials must be ready to move when opportunity strikes. The county's fund for such purchases is down to about $5 million.

The county would limit debt service to no more than 1 mill to repay the bonds. That translates to $4 per $100,000 on an owner-occupied home and $6 per $100,000 on a second home or rental property.

It is remarkable what the county's Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program has achieved in the past 12 years. Through outright purchases and conservation easements, the county has protected more than 20,400 very diverse acres. We have saved environmentally sensitive areas around our saltwater rivers and marshes, created parks, preserved important historical and archaeological sites and established critical development buffers around Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, a vital part of our local economy.

And county officials have proved good stewards of the program's money. The average cost per acre protected is just $4,400, according to the Beaufort Open Land Trust, which manages the program.

This year, county officials showed restraint in turning down the owners' offer to sell scenic Pepper Hall Plantation acreage on the banks of the Okatie River. It was the right call. The price was too high, the number of acres to be protected too low and development plans too opaque to say yes.

The program's reach has spanned the county. It has protected more than 8,000 acres in the ACE Basin, protected the Bluffton Oyster Co. and built the Bluffton Oyster Factory Park in old town Bluffton, expanded the public's historic Mitchelville holdings on Hilton Head Island, protected more than 2,000 acres of agriculture lands and historic sites on St. Helena Island, and protected more than 600 acres in the Okatie River headwaters area, nearly 800 acres in the New Riverside area of Bluffton and more than 160 acres at Widgeon Point on Lemon Island.

The program's proponents want to use 20 percent of the new money to improve the existing holdings, including building trails, benches, signs, observation areas and bathrooms.

An important component of the county's 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.

Putting our collective money where our mouth is the best way to manage development and protect our natural resources in the coming years. That should be coupled with a strong, cohesive plan from municipalities and the county about where and how that development should occur.

Beaufort County residents are richer for the money spent to preserve land for parks and open spaces. We can't afford not to keep this valuable program moving ahead. Please vote "yes."

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