Beaufort News

Preservation board considers 2012 referendum to fund land buys, maintenance

Fort Fremont, located on St. Helena Island, was purchased by The Trust for Public Land and the Beaufort County Council in October 2004 for $5.4 million. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites on May 5, 2010. It is part of the Rural and Critical Lands program.
Fort Fremont, located on St. Helena Island, was purchased by The Trust for Public Land and the Beaufort County Council in October 2004 for $5.4 million. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites on May 5, 2010. It is part of the Rural and Critical Lands program. File photo

The future of a Beaufort County land conservation program and how to continue to pay for it were the subjects of a meeting Thursday that brought county staff and members of the Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Board together.

Over the past decade, the program borrowed $90 million through two voter-approved referenda.

"To date, we have spent $75 million of that, which has given us 65 different properties and 17,500 acres protected," said Ann Bluntzer, executive director of the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, which administers the program.

Garrett Budds, director of land protection for the trust, said the efforts have begun to challenge conventional wisdom. For example, when a development is being considered, he said, the primary discussion is over the size of the investment.

"Nowhere in that tabulation does it say, 'but it's going to impact the waterway that also filters your stormwater, provides the shrimp on your shrimp and grits, etcetera.'"

Bluntzer said much work remains to be done.

FUTURE FUNDING

Most board members seemed to agree that County Council should add a referendum to the 2012 ballot, asking voters to provide another round of funding.

What still needs to be worked out are the details of such a ballot question.

One item to consider, Budds said, is whether to allow flexibility in terms of how the money is spent, including whether it could be used to protect areas in neighboring counties whose waterways flow into the Broad River.

"If we don't have an interest in what happens over there, we're going to suffer over here," he said.

The 2012 election is more than a year away, but County Council members said they would need to decide whether the referendum will be included by the middle of next year. Several rounds of approval are required to get that far.

"You have to start moving it now in order to hit that target," Councilwoman Laura Von Harten said.

PUBLIC USE

Board members also said they want to open more land to public access, especially with a possible vote for more funding around the corner.

Seven properties, consisting of about 170 acres, have been designated as parks and opened to the public.

To open more public land, the board and staff will sort the remaining properties into several categories. Among them are:

  • parcels that have sensitive habitat and should be closed to the public
  • parcels that should be open for limited use such as walking trails.
  • parcels that could allow active recreation.
  • The board will also need to consider how to best maintain those properties that are open for public use.

    "At a certain point, the Planning Department needs to step back and stop being the operator of parks, because that's the role I'm in," said county planning director Tony Criscitiello.

    Funding to maintain the properties could also be an issue, especially as the county continues to grapple with a slowly recovering economy, lower property values, and projected revenue declines. Those costs could be included in a 2012 referendum.

    Another option might be public-private partnerships.

    Board members heard from the non-profit Adventure Education Center, which is exploring such a deal. The organization runs summer camps and activities at a park in Columbus, Ohio.

    Gary Moore, director of the group, said he is familiar with the area because he owns a home in Beaufort County. He said activities -- such as a zipline "canopy tour" through the trees -- could help draw visitors to a park and keep it open and clean.

    "While we're doing canopy tours, our job, too, would be to help maintain the property," he said.

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