VOTERS TO DETERMINE FATE OF RURAL AND CRITICAL LANDS PROGRAM FUNDING
Carol Weir – Hilton Head Monthly – Photo by Guido Flueck
The pace of development in the Lowcountry can be measured in days, as wild wooded areas become construction sites practically overnight. The Beaufort County Rural and Critical Land Preservation Program protects Lowcountry land — including some of the area’s most gorgeous vistas — forever. In November, voters will be asked to approve or reject a bond referendum question that would provide $25 million in additional funding for the land-buying program.
If approved, the money will allow the county to continue to buy and protect land from future development, to develop passive parks on some of the areas, and to maintain property already owned by the program. With about $6 million a year being spent on land acquisitions, the program currently has about one year of acquisition funding remaining. If the new bond passes, it will provide two to three years of funding.
If voters approved the referendum question in November, in order to pay off the bonds, the tax bill on a $250,000 owner-occupied home would go up an estimated $9. About $14 would be added to the bill of a $250,000 second home.
Critics of the program say that economically disadvantaged areas, especially in northern Beaufort County, need development — not open space — to create jobs for residents. Proponents of the program point to the economic benefits of preserved open space for industries like tourism and real estate, in addition to environmental benefits.
THE RURAL AND CRITICAL LAND PRESERVATION PROGRAM PROTECTS THE MOST ENVIRONMENTALLY CRITICAL LAND AND MAINTAINS RURAL LAND FOR FARMING AND BUFFERS.
Created in 1999, the Rural and Critical Land Preservation Program protects the most environmentally critical land and maintains rural land for farming and buffers. Since then, voters have approved four ballot measures to fund the program for a total of $135 million. Over the years, the program has preserved 23,134 acres through purchases or conservation easements. According to a recent study by the national nonprofit group The Trust for Public Land, that $135 million has had a positive economic impact on Beaufort County to the tune of $2 billion.
“Parks, trails and open spaces increase the value of nearby residential properties in Beaufort County because people enjoy living close to these amenities and are willing to pay for this proximity,” according to the study, citing statistics that showed property values near the program’s protected areas increased by $127 million, resulting in an increase of property tax revenues of $1.12 million.
The Beaufort County Open Land Trust, which manages the Rural and Critical Land Preservation Program, handles land acquisition negotiations for the county. Land trust executive director Barbara Hodges said many federal and state land protection programs have one primary requirement: a local funding match. Thanks to Rural and Critical Land programs, Beaufort County is eligible for these grants.
Hodges said the program is targeting land that buffers sensitive rivers and streams to protect and restore water quality. The Trust for Public Land study estimates that open properties protected by the program have delivered an estimated $27.4 million in stormwater filtration services.
The Rural and Critical Lands program protects vital habitat for native and endangered plants and animals, but it also protects open space for enjoyment by people.
Stefanie Nagid was hired in March as the county’s passive parks manager. Planned improvements include entrances, parking, restrooms, nature trails, boardwalks, wildlife viewing areas, fishing/crabbing platforms, kayak launches, camping areas, pavilions, picnic tables and grills. In southern Beaufort County, improvements on the Okatie Regional Preserve in the town of Bluffton are in the final planning and permitting stages and will include an equestrian riding trail.
Of all the parks she oversees, Nagid says the New Riverside/Garvey Hall properties off May River Road are among her favorites.
“When you walk out on to the land, you get a sense of wilderness even though you aren’t that far from town,” she said. “I’m very excited to see how the master planning process plays out with these properties.”
It’s that sense of destination that draws many residents and visitors to the Lowcountry. Cultural heritage and eco-tourism are on the rise, and The Trust For Public Land study indicated “at least 9 percent” of county visitors come to visit historic sites, parks and conserved open spaces — and are spending “$116 annually, generating $3.46 million in local tax revenues.”
Of particular interest to the program is preserving lands associated with the Gullah community. The Rural and Critical Lands program recently provided $250,000 for the master plan for an interpretative center on the site of Hilton Head Island’s Mitchellville — the first post-Civil War self-governing village for freedmen in the country.