Beaufort County has agreed to buy and preserve nearly 65 acres of marsh, wetlands and forest along the Okatie River in Bluffton.
The acquisition prevents future development on land in the proposed Buckwalter development once considered prime for residential and commercial growth along the U.S. 278 corridor.
It also expands the adjacent Okatie Regional Park and creates a permanent, U-shaped buffer around the river's critical headwaters, which were damaged by pollution starting in the mid-1990s.
"If we ever want to restore the Okatie River, we've got to protect what's around it," said Garrett Budds, conservation director for the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, which manages conservation land for the county. "That's the one thing we must do. If we don't do that, we can just write it off."
Beaufort County Council voted Monday to buy the first 45 acres for $1.8 million. The county has options to purchase the remaining 20 acres in two phases before the year ends for $2.9 million.
County spokeswoman Joy Nelson said the negotiated sale prices are at least 25 percent lower than the properties' appraised values. The sellers were not identified, although Budds said the land is owned by two limited-liability corporations.
Money for the purchase is coming from the Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program, which is paid for by voter-approved borrowing. That fund has about $7.2 million left, not including this acquisition, which has not yet closed.
This fall, voters will be asked to approve another $25 million referendum for the preservation program. County residents previously approved $90 million for it during two separate referenda, said County Council Chairman Weston Newton.
"Protecting our waterways is tantamount to protecting our natural resources and our way of life, quite honestly, in this part of South Carolina," he said Tuesday.
Indeed, while the Okatie was once considered a pristine waterway, it is now deemed "impaired" by the state. Because of high bacteria counts, shellfish harvesting on the river has been banned since 1995. Many of the problems are tied to stormwater runoff from nearby development, Budds said.
Protecting land immediately surrounding impaired rivers like the Okatie has been shown to help prevent further damage and even allow waterways to heal, he said.