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Bluffton Town Council update: Okatie River preservation effort clears hurdle

The Shell Hall entrance on Buckwalter Parkway.
The Shell Hall entrance on Buckwalter Parkway. Google maps

A plan to preserve a large tract of land adjacent to the Okatie River cleared a major hurdle Tuesday.

The Bluffton town council gave preliminary approval Tuesday evening to a measure that terminates a development agreement with the owner of a 111-acre plot along SC 170 that was slated for commercial and residential development.

Instead of building 449 homes and 119,000 square feet of commercial space, the parcel could be turned into a preservation area.

The council's decision Tuesday sets the stage for Beaufort County to move forward with plans to buy the tract from its owner, New Leaf LLC, for $2 million.

Closing on that sale is expected soon, according to county documents.

"We are in the home stretch," county stormwater manager Eric Larson said Tuesday.

The undeveloped tract would serve as a stormwater runoff buffer between nearby neighborhoods and the Okatie River.

The river is classified by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control as an impaired waterway, and reduction in development nearby could help change that status, experts say.

Polluted waterways are a threat to the local economy, which relies upon shrimping and other shellfish harvesting.

"The river once supported a healthy and prosperous shellfish population, but agriculture and development have reduced its overall harvest," according to a recent DHEC report.

Parts of the river near Kent Estates have been closed for shellfish harvesting for years due to high levels of fecal coliform, a bacteria found in runoff, said Shawn Leininger, the town's director of growth management.

If the land deal goes through, the county plans to build a series of stormwater management lagoons on the property to help keep pollutants out of the river.

The county's Natural Resources committee voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend the County Council accept a $792,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help pay for the construction of one such lagoon.

There are also plans to connect the parcel to the nearby Okatie Regional Park via publicly-accessible walking trails.

In addition to the environmental benefits, eliminating the potential for 449 new homes will result in less stress on nearby infrastructure like roadways and schools, Bluffton's assistant director of growth management Kendra Lelie said.

The Kent Estates development has been plagued with issues for years.

The town entered into the development agreement with New Leaf in 2004, and four years later, 20 acres were sold to National HealthCare Corp. for development.

Since then, there has been no development on the property due to what town documents call a "severe and prolonged downturn in the (economy)."

New Leaf is in default on its mortgage payments for the property and owes the town more than $400,000 in fees, Leininger said.

The town council will hold a final vote Oct. 13 on the development agreement termination and a zoning change that will set aside the property for preservation.

Follow reporter Lucas High on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Lucas.

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