Across the river from downtown Beaufort awaits what some land preservation advocates say is the opportunity of a lifetime.
A recent proposal envisions a 10-acre waterfront park with hundreds of feet of walking and biking trails along the Beaufort River on Lady’s Island, easily accessible from downtown via the Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge. The property is seen as a natural extension of Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park and would be part of an eventual walking and biking network connecting a loop between Beaufort, Lady’s Island and Port Royal.
Developers planning to build on the highly desired land known as Whitehall are willing to sell up to 10 acres for a public park if land preservationists can agree on a price and come up with the millions likely required to make the deal under a tight deadline.
“We’re not going to get another bite at that apple,” said Beaufort County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville. “If we don’t, it will be filled up with houses, condos and that will be the end of it.”
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Beaufort developer Sam Levin, with development group Whitehall Point Holdings LLC, recently agreed to consider selling up to 10 acres after talks with the Beaufort County Open Land Trust. Levin and Land Trust land protection director Barbara Holmes declined to say what purchase price has been discussed or the value of a recent appraisal.
Sommerville said his understanding from the Land Trust is that the property was valued at $680,000 per acre. Those working to buy the park say they won’t pay more than the appraised value.
The money could come from the balance in the county Rural and Critical Lands program, private donations and grant money, Holmes and Sommerville said.
A deal for the park would have to come together by the end of August. Developers are working to buy the property from First Chatham Bank in Savannah, with closing planned in September, Levin said.
Engineers and architects are moving forward with the permitted plan, he said, and building drawings could go before the city’s design board by the end of the year.
“We are not slowing down one iota,” Levin said. “... We think it would be a wonderful thing for the community; we think it would be a good thing for us, but we are not counting on it.”
The county’s land preservation program administered by the nonprofit Land Trust has about $5.8 million remaining for land purchases from a 2014 bond referendum, Holmes said. Beaufort County voters will decide Nov. 6 whether to pump another $25 million into the Rural and Critical Lands program.
The idea of a public park at Whitehall has been discussed for more than 50 years, Land Trust leaders say. Numerous development plans for the property in recent years have failed to materialize.
Maintaining some open space along the water has been part of recent plans, including Levin’s. The developers plan to build an independent living facility with a pool, commercial space, homes and condos on the 19-acre property bordered by Sea Island Parkway to the north and Meridian Road to the east.
Those plans came forward after the public pushed back against an earlier concept that included seven large apartment buildings.
The park would remove about 70 townhome and condo units from development plans, leaving the independent living facility, commercial space and some cottage sites.
“We are doing all we can to take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity to give this community what it has been so passionately asking for,” Holmes said in a statement. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Once construction begins, the conversion of this land to residential use is irreversible.”
The Land Trust said the remaining property would be developed according to the concept approved by northern Beaufort County planning officials earlier this year. Plans will remain the same as what they are zoned for, and density on the remaining property wouldn’t increase, Levin said.
Chuck Newton, with the grassroots Sea Island Corridor Coalition, said the group is skeptical of the deal and would look for assurance that the remaining property would be developed as planned. Those who have worked for months advocating for what they feel is an agreeable concept finally have some certainty, he said.
“I don’t think anybody wouldn’t want to have a park there,” Newton said. “It’s never as simple as that.”