Beaufort County has taken a positive step by preserving an important piece of property along the impaired Okatie River.
An environmentally sensitive 18 acres of Pepper Hall Plantation is now owned by the public, thanks to a $4 million investment by the county's Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program.
But there is much more work to be done to prevent this larger tract from being over-developed.
We are glad to see that Beaufort County Council's vote to buy the 18-acre tract also included a $500,000 option to buy the remaining 102 acres of Robert Graves' pastoral property on U.S. 278 across from Island West, near Sun City Hilton Head.
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That entire tract should be owned by the public to end forever the threat of intensive commercial development sought by the Graves family, which naturally sought a solid return on land it has owned for 130 years.
Beaufort County has 18 months to exercise the option to buy the 102 acres for $12 million. That would bring its total outlay to $16.5 million.
County Council now must find a way to buy the land, and then go about preserving it in the spirit of its current zoning, which allows up to 57 houses and 5,000 square feet of commercial space. By comparison, the Graves family at one time sought rezoning on 142 acres to allow more than 400 houses and 1.4 million square feet of commercial space, calling that the property's "highest and best use." To get a picture of this in your mind, the two Tanger Outlet centers combined are 500,000 square feet.
We want to see a new "highest and best use" that fits with the fact that Beaufort County has already spent more than $25 million for land and development rights around the headwaters of the Okatie River. The river was closed to shellfish harvesting in 1995. Subsequent state and federal studies show that pollutants going into the river need to be reduced by up to 50 percent in the upper reaches of the Okatie watershed.
For Beaufort County to best control Pepper Hall's impact on the river, it needs to own the land.
It became apparent over the past decade that owning the land would require compromises by both the county and the Graves family. We hope the current deal can end years of uncertainty and disagreements over the property's zoning, and its value. What is on the table now could be the best possible option for both sides.
It is disconcerting that the purchase agreement came days after the Graves family turned to Hardeeville to explore annexation of its property into the Jasper County municipality for more favorable zoning. The family had earlier gone zoning-shopping with the town of Bluffton, but that potential annexation never happened. Making and dodging threats is not an appropriate way to set public policy.
Beaufort County and the land owners were far apart on the land's value, with one side saying it was as high as $23 million and the other saying it was $9 million. The proposed $16.5 million deal for 120 acres -- which does not include another 22 acres that once was part of the negotiations -- is almost an even split between the two figures.
And even though a rezoning request has been set aside until the option to purchase is resolved, it was clear that the land had more value than reflected in its current undeveloped state; and it had less value than reflected in the unreasonable level of development sought by the land owners.
Beaufort County will need public support to complete this deal. That support should come with the assurance that the primary objectives are protection of natural resources and limited development.