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Lessons learned in key land conservation move in county

Recent land purchases by the Beaufort County Rural and Critical Lands Program and the Port Royal Sound Foundation will help protect Port Royal Sound and its fisheries.
Recent land purchases by the Beaufort County Rural and Critical Lands Program and the Port Royal Sound Foundation will help protect Port Royal Sound and its fisheries. dlauderdale@islandpacket.com

Two weeks ago, the county scored a victory for water quality and our quality of life when it purchased the 95-acre Mobley Tract and 24-acre Jeter tract in the Chechessee River watershed with funds from the Beaufort County Rural and Critical Lands Program and the Port Royal Sound Foundation.

By protecting these properties, the county removes one of the most immediate development threats in the watershed. Mobley and Jeter represent a critical addition to the Beaufort-Jasper greenbelt, which is essential for reducing sprawl along the border of the two counties and protecting water quality in the Chechessee River watershed and Broad River.

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The Coastal Conservation League’s long history with the Mobley tract specifically provides important lessons about how local land use planning and policy, strategic land protection and public engagement can produce conservation outcomes.

The first lesson reminds us that coordinated and comprehensive land use planning and zoning saves taxpayers time and money.

The opposite of good land use planning is municipal annexation into unpopulated rural areas.

In 2006, the town of Port Royal launched an annexation spree, leaping across the Broad River marsh to grab Rose Island and Mobley. Working with potential developers, the town upzoned Mobley to allow 250 units, an eight-fold increase in density compared to the county plan.

The Keep Chechessee Rural Alliance and the Conservation League sued Port Royal over the Mobley annexation and the rezoning. We were unable to reverse the annexation, but we negotiated a settlement that reduced the overall density to 125 homes.

Rogue annexation without comprehensive planning was a trend across the region in the 2000s. Bluffton reached for Palmetto Bluff. The city of Beaufort annexed Distant Island and a site we hoped would never become a new Walmart, and Yemassee grabbed Binden Plantation in northern Beaufort County.

Mobley represents the third time the Rural and Critical Lands Program has come to the rescue and permanently protected and corrected annexation and development mistakes. This is a great outcome for Mobley but expensive in the long term.

The Mobley tract’s lenient zoning made the property more expensive than it would have been had the county comprehensive land plan held. Since this mistake, the town of Port Royal, city of Beaufort and the county have wisely invested in a coordinated growth and annexation strategy; citizens must ensure this is upheld. This coordination will help prevent developers from holding critical properties hostage in the future.

The second is a lesson about strategic land protection. Protecting the Mobley tract, and the fragile Chechessee River watershed, is an example of money spent in the right place, even after bad zoning exaggerated the price.

But it is unrealistic to expect we can protect every ecologically important property. With this in mind, the county should double-down on its efforts to protect the most strategic parcels to form our region’s greenbelt. Fortunately, the Rural and Critical Lands “Greenprint” community plan guides the way and identifies keystone properties along our rivers’ headwaters in places like the Broad River corridor, St. Helena Island, New Riverside and Burton.

Yet another way to be tactical and stretch limited public dollars is through the use of conservation easements. Conservation easements, as opposed to public fee purchases, protect more acres at a lower cost and should be the preferred land conservation method. For properties already owned by the county, a comprehensive plan is needed for their use and specific agreements are needed to protect these properties permanently.

The final “Mobley” lesson is about public involvement. The future of Beaufort County comes down to people and organizations. The public — in this case the Keep Chechessee Rural Alliance, the Conservation League, the Beaufort Open Land Trust, the Port Royal Sound Foundation and others — remained vigilant and focused on the conservation vision for the future even when challenges existed.

Vision, planning, public funding, public education, advocacy, litigation … these are the essential components of successful conservation. Mobley is a case study in the importance of deploying all of these measures creatively, over the course of decades, in the cause of protecting the extraordinary Lowcountry environment and a unique way of life.

Our thanks to Beaufort County, the Rural and Critical Lands board, and the Port Royal Sound Foundation for protecting the Broad River.

Kate Schaefer is director of the South Coast office of the Coastal Conservation League.