Despite continuing opposition from some in the community, an agreement allowing the development of the Pepper Hall Plantation property is one step away from final approval following a 6-4 Beaufort County Council vote Monday night.
Long one of Beaufort County’s most controversial issues, the proposed agreement between county council and owner Robert Graves narrowly passed its second reading before a contentious crowd of about 40 people, 20 of whom spoke. Only Barry Johnson, Graves’ attorney, spoke in favor of the agreement to allow the 83-acre property along U.S. 278 and the Okatie River in Bluffton to be developed.
Johnson declined additional comment Tuesday, citing the pending agreement.
Under the proposed agreement:
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- The county would allow Graves an exception on the amount of open space his property would require to be developed. Beaufort County would count the 18 acres it purchased from Graves in 2013 toward his open space requirement instead of requiring additional land.
- Beaufort County would swap 2.5 acres of its waterfront land along the Okatie River for 1.5 acres of inland property that Graves currently owns. Graves earlier sold a barn that sits on the property to the county and would regain ownership of it through the swap.
- Graves and the county would split stormwater management costs 50-50 despite the fact that Graves owns a majority of the property on which the management and associated costs would apply.
- Beaufort County would agree to pay $2 million to pave and reroute Graves Road in order to save two oak trees. A sizable portion of the road would sit on Graves’ private property.
Rikki Parker, a project manager with the Coastal Conservation League, said the group wants the open space sharing and the barn parcel land swap items removed from the agreement.
“The Rural and Critical Lands program is widely supported, and voters passed a bond referendum with more than 70 percent support,” she said Tuesday. “The agreement perverts the purpose of the Rural and Critical Lands Program that protected this land with taxpayer dollars.”
Natural Resources Committee chairman Brian Flewelling and Councilman Mike Covert said negotiations with Graves and his attorney were continuing and could address some opponents’ concerns.
“At the end of the day (Monday), I was not happy to give up a lot more than we needed to,” Flewelling said. “Robert heard me and called me this morning. He doesn’t want to be seen as a bad neighbor and wants to do what everyone wants so this can work out.”
Flewelling said details of the agreement likely would not be finalized earlier than Wednesday. He suggested Graves was willing to discuss changing the open space and land swap items.
Pepper Hall has been at the center of an ongoing controversy since the county first attempted to purchase it in its entirety from Graves in December 2013.
According to previous reporting, the county instead bought the 18 acres it owns for $4 million. But the option it held to buy the rest for $12 million never materialized when the county restarted negotiations in October 2015.
That left talks dead until about February 2018, according to Flewelling, when a new subcommittee began negotiating again with Graves about a compromise.
Those negotiations led to a memorandum of understanding that would permit Graves to sell and develop his land into hundreds of homes while allocating the 18 acres the county bought for use as a passive park.
Beaufort County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville, who cast one of the four “no” votes Monday, said he still believes the proposal is too vague and doesn’t make sense for the county, particularly because of the nature of the proposed land swap and stormwater use.
“The devil is in the details,” he said Tuesday. “Experts on staff were sidelined during early negotiations. We voted the first reading by title only, and between the first reading on Nov. 5 and Nov. 26, the document changed — we had to redo the second reading.”
Sommerville’s complaints align with those of former Beaufort Mayor Bill Rauch, who said in an op-ed piece in The Island Packet on Nov. 24 that county staff was told it was “too emotional” and should let council handle the negotiations with Graves.
However, on Tuesday, Flewelling said county staff was a part of the process.
“Staff was involved from start to finish,” he said. “They gave us presentations and plenty of research along the way that led to our decision.”
County council will give residents one last chance to weigh in on the proposed agreement at a 6 p.m. meeting Dec. 10 at the county administration building at 100 Ribaut Road in Beaufort.
A final vote is expected then.