Okatie River still at risk with new rezoning plan

info@islandpacket.comMarch 7, 2013 

Promises to protect our waterways from the bad effects of too much development in the wrong place ring hollow given what we've experienced here in the past decade.

So when the Beaufort County Planning Commission tries to temper its approval of a drastic rezoning of property on the banks of the Okatie River by recommending the developer guarantee the project won't increase the amount of pollutants reaching the river, we aren't reassured.

Neither were we reassured when the attorney representing the Graves family members who own the 113 acres in question pointed to a development agreement not yet written and requirements that might come during the permitting process.

We've heard it all before and still shellfish harvesting in the Okatie River and much of the May River is restricted or prohibited.

County staff got it right in its assessment of the request to allow 700,000 square feet of commercial development on 65 acres fronting U.S. 278 and mixed commercial and residential uses on another 48 acres: "Allowing intense commercial and moderate-density development would contribute to the further degradation of water quality in the Okatie River and would be a departure from the county's historical commitment to restoring (the river's) water quality."

That commitment includes nearly $25 million the county has spent on land and development rights in the Okatie watershed as it tries to restore the river to good health. And it would climb higher if the county and Graves family reach an agreement on the county's buying 18 acres outright and purchasing the development rights on 10 more acres.

The commission voted to cap commercial development at 700,000 square feet on the 65 acres but included in that cap any potential second- or third-floor space. No building can be more than 75,000 square feet.

It's a step in the right direction, but that's still a potentially very big footprint. The Coastal Conservation League's Reed Armstrong pointed out at the commission meeting that 700,000 square feet is more than the combined square footage of the two Tanger Outlet centers at 500,000 square feet. The cap's impact on the development footprint would depend on how much of that space ended up on second or third floors.

The current zoning allows 5,000 square feet of commercial space and 57 homes, according to the county.

The Planning Commission decision is by no means final. A rezoning requires County Council approval, and we hope council members continue their commitment to improving and protecting local waterways.

The surest way to do that is to stop building in the wrong places and remember that when hard surfaces -- roofs, streets, parking lots, driveways -- account for more than 10 percent of a watershed's area, water degradation will follow.

The state once considered the Okatie River an "outstanding resource water," a designation that recognizes a waterway's exceptional value in terms of its recreational use and ecological importance.

Local officials have bet before that they can engineer a way to prevent polluting runoff from reaching our rivers. It hasn't worked well so far.

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