Beaufort County Council is considering a change to the way it conserves and preserves land through its Rural and Critical Lands Program that allows limited economic development on the properties.
The change could be part of a referendum put before voters in November to raise another $20 million for the program managed by the county's Open Land Trust.
However, some county and environmental leaders are concerned that allowing even limited development on properties selected for the program would undermine its conservation mission.
The council will consider the change Monday, when it is scheduled to hold a first of threes votes on whether such a referendum should be included on the fall ballot. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. in the county administration building at 100 Ribaut Road in Beaufort.
Allowing "reasonable development" on some properties purchased through Rural and Critical Lands could benefit both the program and the local economy, Councilman Jerry Stewart said. Selling parts of these properties where development is appropriate would allow the program to replenish itself, negating the need for future referendums, he said.
It would also help spur economic development, he said. County Council would have control over those sales and developments to ensure the environment is not damaged, he added.
The program has typically purchased properties to ensure environmentally sensitive areas will never be developed, while also opening some of the lands to the public as passive parks, according to Open Land Trust director Patty Kennedy.
It has been a successful growth-management tool and continues to have the support of the community, she added.
Voters have approved three ballot measures since 2000 that raised a total of $110 million for the program. The most recent was for $20 million in 2012, which enhanced the program's ability to open some properties as parks with access to trails and piers, such as Factory Creek Park on Lady's Island, Kennedy said.
This history of success means County Council should be cautious about changing the program, Councilman Stu Rodman said.
"I thought the whole point of this was to preserve our natural resources, our quality of life, not economic development to buy land and flip it or to make sure that we control it for one specific purpose," Councilman Tabor Vaux added. "I just think that changes the whole nature of what we're even talking about."
County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville agrees. Council members seem to be overwhelmingly in favor of continuing the program with another referendum, but Sommerville said he would be surprised if the permission for development on program lands is approved.
"I'm absolutely, unqualifiably opposed to (the change)," Sommerville said. "It completely turns the program upside-down. The program was never designed to be an economic-development tool."
The program has taken some land off county tax rolls, depriving the county of possible revenue, Stewart and Councilman Gerald Dawson say.
"It's a Catch-22." Dawson said, "You've got to balance that."
The Pepper Hall tract along U.S. 278 and the Okatie River, and some property around Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort could be used this way, Stewart said. For example, most of Pepper Hall could be conserved to protect the Okatie River while still allowing limited, profitable development on appropriate areas of the property along the highway, he said.
Some still have questions, however.
"How do you keep the clarity of the mission? How do you marry those two?" Kennedy asked. "If council chooses to go in this direction, there will be a whole other follow-up about how to create the criteria for this to keep that mission intact."
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.