If voters approve a $25 million bond issue to fund Beaufort County's Rural and Critical Land Preservation Program, protecting the headwaters of the Okatie River and the May River will be priorities moving forward, the program's conservation director said Wednesday.
If the referendum goes the other way, the organization will focus on the uses of the parcels -- including for public parks -- on sites the county already owns. The referendum question will be on Beaufort County ballots in the general election Nov. 6.
During a tour organized by the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area, Garrett Budds, conservation director for the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, spoke about protecting land to help local waterways. The land trust manages the conservation program for the county.
"The best way to improve water quality is by reducing stormwater run off and impervious surfaces in areas that drain into the rivers," he said.
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The group visited three county acquisitions: Bluffton Oyster Factory Park, Widgeon Point near Lemon Island, and a new section of Okatie Regional Park adjacent to Hampton Parkway. Budds also spoke about properties on Beach City Road on Hilton Head Island.
The program includes purchasing land outright and buying development rights. It aims to conserve ecologically significant land and scenic vistas; many acquisitions prevent future development on land already permitted for residential and commercial growth.
In other cases, conservation easements allow the property owner and his family to remain on the land and use it for farming, hunting, fishing or other historic purposes agreed upon at the time of sale. Through conservation easements and outright purchases, the program has protected about 20,000 acres.
The program is paid for largely by voter-approved borrowing. County residents previously approved a total of $90 million for the program in two referendums in 2000 and 2006. Voters supported both by margins of about 3 to 1. The fund has about $5 million left and needs to be replenished by 2014 if the program is to continue, Budds said.
Beaufort County officials have noted that the economic downtown has benefited the land buying program through low real estate values, heightened interest from landowners wanting to sell properties to the program, and lower interest rates for borrowing.
Okatie Regional Park was acquired in phases on both sides of Hampton Parkway near U.S. 278. It creates a permanent, U-shaped buffer around the Okatie River's headwaters. Damage to the river began in the mid-1990s by pollution including stormwater runoff from nearby development. The Okatie is now deemed "impaired" by the state because of high bacteria counts. Shellfish harvesting on the river has been banned since 1995.
Protecting land surrounding impaired rivers has been shown to help prevent further damage and allow waterways to heal over time.
"If we ever want to restore the Okatie River, we've got to protect what's around it," Budds said.
Beaufort County spokeswoman Joy Nelson has said that the negotiated sale price for the latest section of the Okatie Regional Park was at least 25 percent lower than the properties' appraised value. Every purchase by the Rural and Critical Land Preservation Program must be a "bargain-basement sale" in which the land owner agrees to take less then appraised value for the property, Budds said.
"The owner has to have a conservation intent so taxpayers get extra value," he said.
On the May River, the purchase of Bluffton Oyster Factory Park -- the site of one of two oyster shucking operations in the state -- from the Reeves family was a partnership between the town of Bluffton and Beaufort County.
Tina Toomer, who runs Bluffton Oyster Co. with her husband, Larry, told the group that preserving water quality in the May River is crucial to her business, which employees about 40 people during the height of oyster season.
She said that preventing development on environmentally sensitive land, green construction techniques, changing consumer tastes in housing and increased environmental awareness among developers are all favorable trends for water quality.
"There isn't a developer out there now who wants to pollute the river," she said.
On Hilton Head, Beaufort County Council recently purchased about 1.5 acres in the Mitchelville area, near Fish Haul Creek Park, for $350,000. The county agreed to pay $248,000, while the town of Hilton Head chipped in $102,000, county officials said.
Remains of Mitchelville, the first self-governed settlement for freed slaves after the Civil War, are underneath the park and the recently purchased properties. Members of the nonprofit Mitchelville Preservation Project have planned a park on the site where parts of the original town of Mitchelville will be recreated.
"What archeology can't do is unearth and preserve remains if something has been built on top of them," Budds said.
Public parks on county lands
A handful of the properties acquired by the program have been designated as parks and opened to the public, and a few more, including Widgeon Point, are slated to open soon. A newly restored barn at Widgeon Point will serve as a meeting space for events and art classes, Budds said. A gravel parking lot will be added soon, and three miles of trails will provide opportunities for hiking, biking and bird watching. A passive recreation area with trails and possibly a canoe launch is planned for Okatie Regional Park.
Looking to the future
While specific potential purchases by the land buying program are confidential, "there are a number of really good candidates on the Okatie River," Budds said.
Along the May River, mostly conservation easements-- rather than outright purchases--will be pursued, he said. In other areas, he said the land trust will work with landowners interested in preserving property "that meets our criteria."
Supporters of the Rural and Critical Land Preservation program say conservation raises property values by preserving the Lowcountry's beauty and open space. Critics of the land buying program have said it spends tax payers money for land that contains undevelopable wetlands, and prevents the preserved properties from ever generating tax revenue.