Changing times call for changing approaches

The Town of Hilton Head Island and the city of Beaufort are tweaking their approaches to land conservation and public open space. Both are doing so for the right reasons and at the right time.

Hilton Head Island spent 20 years and more than $160 million buying land primarily to preserve open space, build parks and reduce development; now, town officials say new purchases could be used to spark needed redevelopment. Hilton Head has preserved more than 1,200 acres since 1990, when it created its real estate transfer fee, and it has taken into account aesthetics and the environment when setting rules for the use of land it doesn't own.

Meanwhile, Beaufort officials recently began working with the Beaufort County Open Land Trust to identify small or under-used parcels that it could sell, said Mayor Billy Keyserling. The goal is to examine the city's holdings and decide whether the parcels provide a public service and if they can be maintained cost-effectively. If the answer to those questions is no, the city will consider selling the land and using proceeds to purchase parcels that better serve the public.

For example, the city and the Open Land Trust, a nonprofit organization that preserves environmentally sensitive land, recently worked with Beaufort County to buy two parcels on the eastern foot of the Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge on Lady's Island. The city contributed $250,000 toward the purchase, and Keyserling said proceeds from future sales of city-owned property could be used to make similar purchases.

Beaufort's effort recognizes that things change, even in cities so cognizant of and reliant on their history. Populations shift. The economy booms and flags.Government must adjust accordingly to meet residents' demands while also being respectful of their pocketbooks.

Hilton Head Island is a much different community, but no different in its obligation to recognize change.

The town's land purchases have accomplished its major goals. The program, funded in large part by the 0.25 percent real estate transfer fee, reduced commercial development by 4.5 million square feet and resulted in 1,365 fewer motel rooms and 4,547 fewer homes, according to town figures.

When the program was first put in place the town was dealing with the ramifications of several decades of rapid growth, including clogged roads with few remedies available and development approvals that predated the town's incorporation.

Now, as town manager Steve Riley notes, Hilton Head has built parks and other public works projects, including fire stations and drainage systems, provided scenic vistas and reduced traffic congestion. Faced with distressed commercial real estate, it's time to consider purchases that spark redevelopment. For instance, property with more debt than value could be bought and portions converted to or combined with existing green space. That could encourage redevelopment of adjacent property that wouldn't have occurred otherwise.

The approach and the specific need is different for Hilton Head than for the city of Beaufort. But for both municipalities, the new approaches demonstrate laudable attempts to simultaneously protect the health of the landscape and the economy.