One reason among the several substantive reasons cited for turning down a request to rezone about 143 acres along the headwaters of the Okatie River stands out:
Beaufort County, in its efforts to protect the sensitive waterway and restore its water quality, has spent more than $8 million to preserve more than 150 acres in that watershed. "Allowing intense commercial and moderate-density residential development would work counter to the county's policies in the Okatie headwaters," the county's planning staff writes in its recommendation to turn down the rezoning request.
That $8 million doesn't even count the $2 million in federal and state spending to study and come up with ways to reverse the negative impacts of development in that area. In 2010, $653,000 was allocated to come up with a plan to reduce the amount of pollutants reaching the river.
The rezoning application seeks "commercial regional" zoning for about 64 acres fronting U.S. 278 and "suburban" zoning for the balance, according to the staff report.
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The staff also notes that even though this rezoning request would allow pedestrian friendly, mixed-use development supported in the county's comprehensive plan, it also wouldn't preclude auto-oriented sprawling development, which the county is trying to stop. Robert Graves, spokesman for family members seeking the rezoning, has said he's not sure yet what might be built if the rezoning is approved, but the family's options broaden as U.S. 278 is expanded from four to six lanes.
The Okatie has been designated impaired since 1995 because of high fecal coliform counts, which studies have attributed largely to increased development in the area. Fecal coliform is an indicator of other pollutants in the water.
State and federal officials have studied pollutant loads in the river to determine the maximum amounts it can handle and stay healthy. Results show that pollutants need to be reduced up to 50 percent in the upper reaches of the Okatie watershed.
The Coastal Conservation League has estimated that 15 percent of the river's watershed already is covered by hard surfaces. Research has found that if 10 percent of land is covered by hard surfaces, harvesting oysters in the headwaters of tidal creeks is likely to be prohibited. If 30 percent or more of the land is covered, it brings changes that can't be turned back completely.
Members of the Graves family have bounced back and forth between Beaufort County and Bluffton as they have sought to rezone this property over the past several years. Bluffton Town Council tabled an annexation and rezoning request in June, asking for more information about development plans for the property. With the county submission, the proposal to the town has been withdrawn.
This situation is a good example of why we need a coordinated effort on protecting our waterways from the perils of development.
It also tests local officials' commitment to rethinking where and how we build, an important component in a plan to restore and protect water quality in the May River.
Milt Rhodes, a former Bluffton planner now working for the Graves family, says higher-intensity development is not always more harmful to the environment, and he's right. But that's not to say we shouldn't be very careful about where and how it is built. Science and experience tell us property that abuts the Okatie's headwaters would not be the place for it.