Don't let negotiations distract from basic issue

Beaufort County Council just gave us seven million more reasons to hope they get it right on what to do with the Graves property along the Okatie River.

County Council voted Monday to spend $7 million to buy 230 acres at nearby Pinckney Point, which lies between the Okatie and Colleton rivers and was the site of a controversial residential development that never got past the permitting stage.

It brings to more than $30 million the investment the county has made in trying to restore the Okatie River's water quality through land and development rights purchases in its watershed.

Unfortunately, a Beaufort County Council committee's decision to delay a vote on a rezoning request for the Graves property very likely means it will happen.

That's been the result of most development agreement negotiations in recent years. When it gets to that stage, no longer are we debating whether a property should be rezoned, but rather the terms under which it will be done.

We'd like to see County Council first vote on whether the zoning for this property should change at all.

The council's Natural Resources Committee voted 4-2 last week to stop the review of the request to rezone the 113 acres near the headwaters of the impaired Okatie River until a development agreement is worked out.

The attorney representing the Graves family members who own the property expressed satisfaction with the decision. Given the history of development agreements in this area, he should be satisfied.

The scenario has been this: Officials say they want to see details hammered out about what will happen with the property before they vote on a rezoning. But they get invested in those negotiations, and when it comes time for a thumbs up or down on the deal, it's thumbs up.

The negotiations also start with what the developer wants, not with the current zoning. That puts those concerned about a rezoning behind from the start.

In this case, the owners want to be allowed to build 700,000 square feet of commercial space on 65 acres fronting U.S. 278 and mixed commercial and residential buildings no another 48 acres. This is no small development. We point out again that the two Tanger Outlet centers combined are 500,000 square feet.

And it's a massive change from the property's current zoning, which allows 5,000 square feet of commercial space and 57 homes, according to the county.

The county Planning Commission has recommended the county allow the rezoning with a few caveats. But the county's planning staff recommended against it, citing traffic concerns and concerns about the impact on the waterway, especially given the county's investment in trying to help the Okatie. The county also is negotiating with the Graves family members to buy and preserve another 18 acres on the river.

As we've said before, development agreements are a Catch 22: We're told not to complain about a project until we've seen the details, but once the details are hammered out, it's too late to walk away.

Officials put in a lot of time and effort in negotiations. They get some concessions from developers. They work to put together what they say is the best deal possible. They are loathe then to say, it's not good enough even when saying "no" might be better for the public at large.

The people voting on development agreements should not participate in negotiating them. They need to be able to objectively assess the terms. That's very difficult to do if they help author the deal.

As for the Graves property, no matter what deal returns for a vote, County Council members should allow themselves the opportunity to say "no." They should view the decision in the context of what can be done with the property today and what the county's long-term goals are for the Okatie River and similarly situated waterways.

The fact a development agreement exists should not make it a done deal.