Some Beaufort County Council members believe at least one more round of funding is needed to buy land for preservation, but others say the 15-year conservation program has met its goals.
The council's debate will determine whether the county's Rural and Critical Lands Program will go before voters for a fourth time since its inception -- possibly as soon as November's general election -- to decide if it should get more money. All three previous bond referendums to fund the program passed.
"I'm struggling with where I think we could go or ought to go," Councilman Stu Rodman said. "I've always been a proponent of Rural and Critical Lands, but one of the questions that always comes up is, 'Where is the end and how do we kind of phase it out?'"
Last week, council voted 5-4, with Councilmen Tabor Vaux and Steve Fobes absent, to endorse a bond referendum for Nov. 4 to decide whether to spend another $20 million on the program. Before the question can be put on the general-election ballot, the council must approve the proposal one more time, at its Aug. 11 meeting.
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Council members Rodman, Gerald Dawson, Cynthia Bensch and Rick Caporale voted against the proposal because of concerns the program doesn't have a clear conclusion. Dawson and Bensch cautioned that the land-buying program could eventually gobble up property that could be used to attract businesses.
"Not that we should stop totally, but pause with the Rural and Critical Lands process temporarily, and let's get started with our economic development process to be sure we capture some of the land that's left available," Dawson said.
OTHER PROPERTIES IDENTIFIED
Since 1998, Rural and Critical Lands has spent more than $105 million in public and private funds to buy almost 11,200 acres in environmentally sensitive areas to ensure they won't be developed. The program has paid more than $52 million to place another 11,400 under conservation easements, which permanently disallow development in exchange for tax breaks.
Voters have overwhelmingly supported the project and have approved three ballot measures since 2000 that raised more than $110 million for the program. The most recent was for $20 million in 2012, when 62 percent of voters supported the measure, according to state elections results.
"I think this has been one of the most successful spending programs Beaufort County has ever had," Councilwoman Laura Von Harten said. "But there are still lots of reasons to support Rural and Critical Lands, and there's a substantial amount of land out there that still merits being purchased by the county this way."
In particular, the county's Open Land Trust, which manages the program, has identified more than $57 million in property it still wants to conserve, land trust attorney Ken Driggers told council last week.
Those properties are in rural areas in the ACE Basin and on St. Helena Island. Also included are locations near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, and the Okatie and May rivers' watersheds in southern Beaufort County, Driggers said.
'TOUGH LOVE' URGED
Without issuing revenue bonds, the county doesn't have the debt capacity or reserves to acquire those properties and control growth in key areas, Driggers said.
An example would be the 9-acre wooded area on U.S. 278 between Hilton Head BMW and Tanger Outlet Center 1, county attorney Josh Gruber said. Last week, a County Council committee approved buying the property for $400,000, with the cost to be split among county, stormwater-management and Rural and Critical Lands funds, he said.
That property, in the watershed that stretches from U.S. 278 to the Colleton River, is a critical natural wetland that would flood over if developed, county stormwater manager Eric Larson said. With the help of the land preservation program, the county can ensure that won't happen, and Larson's team can study how the site can be used for better stormwater management, Larson said.
The purchase has unanimous support, including the council members who voted against the referendum. Bensch contends it's one of the final "truly critical" properties that needed to be purchased to both guarantee it will not be developed and give the county a leg up on water management there.
But those types of needs are likely to crop up again as the county continues to grow. That suggests to Dean Moss, an Open Land Trust board member, that the program is not yet done.
"The low-hanging fruit has been picked, and we've got to now be careful and go after projects that we really think are important," Moss said. "But we may need to do some more. It's the kind of decision we can't make until the fat lady sings; you've got to see where you are."
However, Bensch and the council members who voted against the referendum worry that time might have already come. Bensch called her dissenting vote "tough love."
"There's a point at which we have to look at our circumstances and economic opportunity and decide whether we want this to go forward because it's been good or if this is a chance to review the plan," Bensch said.
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.