Protect sensitive land; don't allow development

Beaufort County is a rare place where residents willingly open their wallets to support land conservation. Since 2000, they have overwhelmingly approved three ballot measures that collectively raised $110 million for the county's Rural and Critical Lands Program.

As a result, thousands of acres of environmentally-sensitive land have been purchased and can never be developed.

County government has benefited from the program too. It has given county leaders an important tool to discourage growth in natural areas deemed worthy of preservation.

But this successful program may be in jeopardy. County Council is considering whether to allow limited development on land purchased in the future. The change could be included on a referendum in November.

We oppose the plan. To fundamentally change the purpose of a conservation program is a breech of trust with voters who have repeatedly shown that protecting the environment is a priority. Residents have put their faith in a program dedicated to true land conservation -- not conservation with development strings attached.

The change is bad for the environment too. Voters will be far less likely to approve more money for the program if they fear development will be allowed. Ultimately, other tracts of sensitive land will not be purchased.

Yes, the county has previously allowed the development of parks, trails and piers on some of the preserved property, including Factory Creek Park on Lady's Island. But such passive uses on the land encourages residents' appreciation for the natural environment while still protecting it. Such environmentally-friendly uses are a far cry from the construction of buildings and parking lots that could be allowed under the proposal.

It seems a majority of council members are also opposed to the change. As councilman Tabor Vaux put it, "the whole point of (the program) was to preserve our natural resources, our quality of life, not (to allow) economic development, to buy land and flip it or to make sure that we control it for one specific purpose."

Other council members point out that the program has taken land off county tax rolls, depriving the county of possible revenue. We view that as the price of having a constituency that prizes conservation. Honoring that priority is the duty of the county's elected officials.

If County Council wants to engage in additional economic development activity, it could set up a fund for that specific purpose. It could work more closely with its economic development arm, the Lowcountry Economic Alliance, to attract businesses to the area. It could investigate ways to become more business-friendly by cutting red tape and streamlining processes and pursuing additional partnerships with the school district and local colleges to develop a workforce.

But to undercut this successful program is a bad decision politically and environmentally. Council should be vested in preserving its success.