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Beaufort Co. could change how it spends millions in public money on land preservation

Experience Whitehall, prime Lady’s Island property ripe for development

Almost 10 acres at Whitehall on Lady's Island across from downtown Beaufort was preserved as parkland, thanks in part to the Beaufort County Rural and Critical Land Preservation Project.
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Almost 10 acres at Whitehall on Lady's Island across from downtown Beaufort was preserved as parkland, thanks in part to the Beaufort County Rural and Critical Land Preservation Project.

Beaufort County wants to change the process for how millions of taxpayer dollars are spent to buy and preserve property from development after controversy followed its most recent deal.

Interim county administrator John Weaver plans for county staff and council members to be more involved in vetting potential purchases from the beginning, according to new procedures he outlined this week.

County officials would be involved before the deals are fully negotiated by the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, which is contracted to administer the county’s land preservation program, and before the county board established to review and offer recommendations to council members on such projects.

The changes come amid a dispute and potential legal action between the county and developers over the terms of the sale of Whitehall on Lady’s Island in October.

“The deal was done before it ever got to you,” Weaver told County Council’s Natural Resources Committee Monday. “That’s what I’m trying to avoid.”

Board members who oversee the county’s land preservation efforts say Weaver’s plans go against county rules for the program.

Until now, Land Trust land protection director Barbara Holmes negotiates with a potential seller, the deal is brought to the Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Board for review and recommendations and then to the Natural Resources Committee. Under Weaver’s recent directive, the County Council committee will consider the project before the Rural and Critical Lands board.

The Natural Resources Committee moved forward under the new procedure Monday, considering the purchase of 108 acres on Lady’s Island and directing the county to move forward with due diligence on the former Harris Pillow site on Trask Parkway across from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

Weaver’s directive goes against county rules that give the Rural and Critical Lands board power to set policies for the preservation program, Land Trust board president Alex Shuford said in a March 12 letter to Weaver copied to council members. Procedural changes should first be brought to the Rural and Critical Lands board and then to County Council for approval, Shuford wrote.

He added that it was not appropriate under the terms of the Land Trust’s contract for county staff members to participate in negotiations.

Representatives for the Land Trust and Rural and Critical Lands board say they support possible improvements to land preservation policies last updated in 2006.

“We feel we can offer valuable insight on the proposed changes,” Open Land Trust executive director Kristin Williams said Thursday. “We just hope we can be part of that conversation before changes are made.”

Rural and Critical Lands board chairman Michael Matthews told the committee Monday that changes would be welcome but should be the result of a group effort.

The county’s contract with the Land Trust is up in June. Weaver wants the proposed procedural changes in the new contract, he wrote in a letter to Land Trust board member Colden Battey in February.

Weaver’s directive comes after the county paid $4.371 million toward the $5.45 million purchase in October of 9.72 acres to preserve as a waterfront park on the Whitehall property Lady’s Island.

County officials have since said they did not agree to all the terms or the deal with developer Sam Levin and his group, Whitehall Point Holdings LLC, and that an easement agreement was filed in error as part of the sale and never properly approved. That sparked the threat of a lawsuit from the developers.

Weaver, interim county administrator since November, painted the Whitehall deal during a council meeting in February as one that enriched developers while County Council was kept largely in the dark as the Land Trust negotiated the agreement without receiving an independent appraisal. Council approved the purchase in the face of broad public support for the park and with a referendum looming on whether taxpayers would approve another $25 million for the land preservation program.

Others told Weaver during the committee meeting Monday that council members knew of the potential deal — if not all the details — sooner than the Aug. 27 date Weaver claimed.

“Whitehall was driven by County Council leadership, not by Rural and Critical Lands or by the Open Land Trust,” Beaufort City Council member Stephen Murray said during the Monday meeting. “To ask for these policy and procedure changes in response to Whitehall is simply unacceptable.”

Stephen Fastenau covers northern Beaufort County as a reporter for The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where he has worked since 2010 and been recognized with state and national awards. He studied journalism and political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lives in Beaufort.
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