Beaufort County is negotiating again with the Graves family to purchase and conserve 28 acres along the Okatie River.
The sides met Thursday for the first time in several months in search "of a price we can all agree on," said Graves family attorney Jim Scheider.
Meanwhile, the Graves family is again asking the county to approve new commercial zoning for the remaining 113 acres of the Pepper Hall tract along U.S. 278 in greater Bluffton.
Although earlier rezoning requests were denied, Scheider is more optimistic this time.
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"We have made substantial progress," he said Friday. "We are continuing to do that, and I think we are all very encouraged."
County attorney Josh Gruber acknowledged negotiations had resumed. However, he said the two sides still haven't agreed on a price for the land, which probably would be paid for by the Rural and Critical Lands program.
"As long as we are having continuing discussions, there is a possibility we will reach some kind of agreement," he said. "But we are not at that point where we have reached an agreement as of yet."
The Graves family has owned the 141-acre Pepper Hall tract for about 130 years. Since 2000, family members have tried several times to get the property rezoned. The most recent denial came in April, amid ongoing concerns of how development would affect the Okatie, which was deemed "impaired" by the state and closed to shellfishing in 1995.
In September, Beaufort County Council rejected the family's offer to sell 10 acres along the river for $10.5 million and permanently conserve 18 more in exchange for the rezoning.
The sides disagreed about the land's value. Gruber also argued rezoning could not be part of a land sale but must be approved separately.
Although the rezoning request is similar to others that failed, Scheider says its approval is no longer tied to the land sale. The Graves family also has offered self-imposed limits on the scale of commercial growth on their land.
Current zoning allowsas many as 57 houses and as much as 5,000 square feet of commercial space. The rezoning proposed earlier this year would allow more than 400 houses and 1.4 million square feet of commercial space.
However, the Graves family has agreed to cap commercial space at 700,000 square feet -- about half of what is allowed under the zoning -- and also to limit new buildings to 75,000 square feet to eliminate concerns about the addition of "big box" stores, documents show.
The rezoning request cleared an initial hurdle Thursday, when it was endorsed by the Planning Commission's southern Beaufort County subcommittee. The full commission is expected to begin its review next month.
County staff did not offer a recommendation on the project because a traffic study has not yet been submitted.
Scheider insists the Graves have no immediate plans to develop the land if the zoning is approved.
"The three elder Graves cousins (want) the property in the proper zoning for their children and grandchildren," he said. "It is their intention, because they are all in their 70s, to at least preserve future uses with the property."