Current zoning should frame debate for county

As the Beaufort County Planning Commission and County Council prepare to take up a rezoning request on property near the troubled Okatie River, they should keep in mind two sets of figures: what the property's owners can build on the property today and the nearly $25 million the county has spent on land and development rights in that area as it tries to restore the river to good health.

Those should be the starting points for deliberations about the property's future -- not what the owners have proposed in the past, nor what they want to do today.

Members of the Graves family want to rezone 113 acres. Current zoning would allow them to build up to 57 houses and as much as 5,000 square feet of commercial space, according to the county. They are asking for zoning that would allow them to do much more than that, but say they would cap commercial space at 700,000 square feet and limit new commercial buildings to 75,000 square feet.

They compare it with a plan rejected last year that would have allowed more than 400 houses and 1.4 million square feet of commercial space.

We ask County Council, which will decide the rezoning issue, to look at the new request in terms of what would be allowed today. That's the relevant comparison and the appropriate starting point.

The county and the family are talking about a possible purchase of another 28 acres on the riverfront in a process described as separate from the rezoning request.

Even if separate issues, a purchase would be a reason to be very careful about what is done on nearby property.

County officials must decide what is in the best interests of the community as a whole and what additional development, if any, can be allowed on that acreage without jeopardizing the efforts expended to date -- and any in the future -- to try to restore what the state once considered an "outstanding resource water." A waterway gets that designation because it holds exceptional value in terms of its recreational use and ecological importance.

We have watched the health of vital resources, such as the Okatie and May rivers, slip away one development agreement, one building permit at a time.

Public officials lament the degradation of our waterways, but they have the power to limit it and turn it around. It starts with being extremely mindful of where and how much development is allowed near sensitive waterways, particularly their headwaters.

Land use decisions must be looked at in context, not piecemeal, if we're to have any hope of doing what we say we want to do -- protect our rivers and our quality of life.