Supporters celebrate preservation efforts

Years after Beaufort County residents worked to preserve 70 acres of Lemon Island in the face of looming development, some of the initiative's supporters were treated to a tour of the protected parcel Sunday afternoon.

Widgeon Point was open to members of the Beaufort County Open Land Trust and the Coastal Conservation League on Sunday for a guided nature walk and discussion on the importance of land conservation. The event celebrates efforts on behalf of the Open Land Trust and Beaufort County to protect ecologically sensitive property on Lemon Island, which in 2007 was being considered for development of a high-density luxury townhouse community.

In July 2007, officials paid for the property with $3.5 million from a county land preservation program, a $500,000 grant from the South Carolina Conservation Bank and $50,000 from the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, a nonprofit organization that relies on donations to preserve land.

Now, the land remains a maritime forest and salt marsh that is home to ducks, geese, white pelicans and bald eagles.

Chris Marsh, executive director of the Lowcountry Institute, told a group of about 50 preservation group members that county residents should be proud of how local nonprofit groupss worked together the preserve the parcel.

He called the land, which contains 55 acres of high land and a 22-acre pond near the Broad River Bridge, an "incredible" piece of property.

"I've never seen anything like it," he said. "The ecology of this area is like nothing else in the world."

Now, Open Land Trust staff and volunteers are working to improve Widgeon Point by creating additional walking trails and a boardwalk to a now inaccessible beach, said Ann Bluntzer, executive director of the nonprofit.

The trust currently is seeking approval from the county and state to open the area for public use, Bluntzer said during the nature walk. Until then, those interested in visiting the island must call the Open Land Trust to organize a tour, she said.

"We're entering the final zoning phase and hope to be able to have the land open for public use by spring," she said. "It's a great example of the nonprofit's members and volunteers working together to achieve something. It's a unique site."

Attendee Al Wood, 84, a Dataw Island resident, said he was impressed with the land. Sunday was his first visit to the island, he said.

"It was excellent and informative," Wood said. "We've helped support the group and have worked on other initiatives, so its wonderful to see the property."

Lemon Island, the only undeveloped Sea Island in Port Royal Sound accessible by public highway and the first parcel to be purchased by the Beaufort County's Rural and Critical Lands program, set the stage for private land preservation with public funds in other parts of the state, said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.

"The success of the program here in Beaufort inspired the state and people in other parts of the state to use public finds to conserve private lands," Beach said. "It's a testament to the heritage of the state. It's impossible to deny the significance of the landscape."

Today, there are 800,000 acres of protected land in the state, he said.

Lemon Island, like other parcels, has a story, Beach said.

"There's a drama to every piece of land," he said. "Every year, we have to fight for funding for conservation. But thanks to a tremendous outpouring of citizen support, we save just a little more. This is where your dollars are going."