A proposal to ask Beaufort County voters whether they're willing to spend another $20 million on land preservation is expected to be up for first-round approval at today's Beaufort County Council meeting.
The referendum question would be added to Beaufort County ballots in the 2012 general election next November.
Two previous referenda have funded the county's Rural and Critical Lands program. The first, passed in 2000, authorized $40 million in borrowing; the second, passed in 2006, added another $50 million. Voters supported both by margins of about 3 to 1.
Of the $90 million approved, about $12.7 million remains unspent.
However, Garrett Budds, conservation director with the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, which manages the county program, said he anticipates that balance will be depleted between now and 2014, probably the soonest another referendum could be held.
Moreover, Budds said there are tremendous opportunities for land preservation now because of historically low real estate values, cheap rates for borrowing and a growing interest from the public.
Councilman Stu Rodman said he thinks County Council should give voters a chance to reinvest in the program, though he hasn't yet decided to check "yes" on the ballot himself.
"As a councilperson, I think it certainly makes sense to give the voters an opportunity," Rodman said. "As a voter, I still would reserve judgment. I want to see if they make a good case for it."
Through conservation easements and outright purchases, the program has protected more than 17,000 acres.
A handful of those properties have been designated as parks and opened to the public, and a few more, including Widgeon Point, are slated to open soon.
Budds said the trust would like to open additional properties, but money to allow that is limited.
The referendum wording currently being considered would allow up to 20 percent of the borrowing -- $4 million -- to be spent on property improvements, which could include trails, benches, signs, observation areas and bathrooms.
It's unclear how many of the parcels might ultimately allow public access.
County workers are evaluating the properties to decide which can be opened and which should remain closed because of sensitive habitat or other factors.
VOTING FOR DEBT
The Rural and Critical Lands Board requested one mill of property tax be levied annually as additional funding for the program. One mill equates to about $4 extra in taxes for every $100,000 of property value on an owner-occupied home, or $6 for every $100,000 of value on a second home or rental property.
Councilman Steve Baer said he is concerned about a spike in debt millage from pending projects, such as the new St. Helena library. But he said it's up to voters whether land-preservation is worth the additional cost on their tax bills.
"I will support adding it to the ballot, because I think the public should decide," Baer said. "When I'm in the voting booth, I'm going to think long and hard."
On the other side, Councilman Brian Flewelling said he will support the referendum's passage.
Flewelling said he's convinced conservation raises property values by preserving the Lowcountry's beauty and open space.
"I see on balance that this program has been successful in Beaufort County," Flewelling said. "The Beaufort that I know and love -- it keeps it that way."
Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.