Voters will decide whether to continue funding Beaufort County's land preservation program when they cast their ballots in the Nov. 4 general election.
The proposed measure would raise $20 million for the Rural and Critical Lands Program. It will be the fourth time that funding for the effort has gone before voters since its inception more than 15 years ago.
All three previous referendums passed and have 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 election results.
Ten County Council members supported putting the referendum on general election ballots at council's meeting Monday night in Beaufort, with Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch the only dissenter.
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Council members have been split about how much longer the program should continue, however. Some think at least one more round of funding is needed to buy land for preservation, but others say the program has met its goals.
The council narrowly approved the measure at its second reading at the end of July, voting 5-4, with Councilmen Tabor Vaux and Steve Fobes absent, to endorse it. Now council members Rick Caporale, Gerald Dawson and Stu Rodman -- who voted against it last month -- say the program's previous popular support has made them reconsider.
"It will be interesting to see if it's as strongly supported this time as it has been in the past," Caporale said. "But a lot of the problems we talk about can't be solved by buying land."
Consensus among council members Monday was that the upcoming referendum will take the temperature of public support for the program. If it's overwhelmingly approved, the program will continue for several more years, they said. If it fails, the program will effectively end when its remaining $5 million is spent.
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 acres under conservation easements, which disallow development permanently in exchange for tax breaks.
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 month.
Bensch, Caporale and Dawson think what's already been preserved might be enough, however. They warned council that continuing the program could contradict its economic development efforts.
"All of us enjoy the quiet, peaceful moss hanging off the oak trees," Bensch said. "That's wonderful, but the reality is we have responsibilities in other ways to protect our environment, not just buying land to preserve it."
Others argue that critical locations for the program to target remain near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and in the Okatie and May river watersheds.
"We've protected the most serious and worst-case-scenario properties, and now we have the opportunity to pick and choose those that meet our definition," Councilman Brian Flewelling said. "If we want the program to slow down, then we need to not vote for approval of projects unless they meet a higher standard."
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.