This November, voters will get a say in what should take priority in Beaufort County: preserving more environmentally sensitive land or luring more businesses here.
County Council recently voted to place a referendum on the Nov. 4 general election ballot. It will ask voters whether to grant $20 million more to the Rural and Critical Lands Program that seeks to protect environmentally sensitive land from development. A yes vote would, in theory, mean land preservation will continue to be a county priority. And for several more years, the county would buy land and keep potential developments at bay.
A no vote would mean the program would effectively end when its remaining $5 million is spent. To some, that would signal that Beaufort County is serious about economic development and upping its effort to lure businesses here.
Voters need to make the decision because council has been split on the program's future.
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On one side are members including Cynthia Bensch, who say the program has met its goal. Since 1998, nearly 11,200 acres have been purchased to ensure they won't be developed and another 11,400 have been placed under conservation easements. These council members say the county has other ways to protect sensitive land. And they add purchasing any more land runs counter to the county's economic development strides.
Other council members, including Brian Flewelling, say many more sensitive tracts of land deserve protection. The Beaufort County Open Land Trust, which manages the program for the county, has identified more than $57 million in property it still wants to conserve.
We see this as an opportunity for residents to give council clear direction that it is currently lacking. And we see land conservation as a significant form of economic development in a region where real estate, construction, tourism and service industries are driven by the beautiful vistas and clean waterways the program helps protect.
Any property purchased as a result of approval of the referendum could not be developed. It could only be used for passive parks, according to county attorney Josh Gruber. That's not true for all land purchased through the program. For instance, a $4 million deal for 18 acres of the Pepper Hall tract along the Okatie River allows for development such as a medical or technology park.
"On a rural and critical-lands referendum, you can only use the property for passive parks," Gruber has said.
That's good news. We believe much of the land purchased through the program should be protected from any kind of development.
Previously, voters have come down on the side of preservation. Three previous referendums to fund the program overwhelmingly passed voters' muster, raising more than $110 million for the program. It has worked well for the county, and should continue.