Hey, Beaufort County, land conservation is a ‘sacred’ trust. Don’t blow it this way

Katherine Kokal/kkokal@islandpacket.com

“Sacred” may have been too strong of a word, but everyone knows what he meant.

Or they better know if Beaufort County’s best tool to control growth is to survive.

The county staff needs to get the message after its foolish stunt last month regarding the county’s “sacred” land conservation program.

County Council was told by the staff that it needed to rush to a vote right that minute on a plan to put a new library and ball fields on land in booming Okatie that was purchased through the Rural and Critical Lands program for the express purpose of keeping it undeveloped.

“I personally view that program (Rural and Critical Lands) as sacred,” said Council member Chris Hervochon of Moss Creek when the council put the brakes on a land swap proposal that hadn’t even been presented to the Rural and Critical Lands board.

Citizens who have repeatedly voted to tax themselves to protect property from the overdevelopment that is ripping the heart out of the Lowcountry think the same way.

They see the program as sacred, but then get slapped with this move that reeks of something from a smoke-filled room full of good old boys.

A reader of our story on the deal commented online: “That is not what the voters have had in mind whenever they were asked to seriously consider conserving our natural land. It will be difficult to ask them again for a vote to conserve when we now hear this proposal.”

Another one wrote: “Soooooo. County asks for our money to preserve critical land from development. Only to have a stipulation to barter the lands that they deem worth protecting. The administrator tries to bully through a resolution without the citizens’ right of input. Here is a classic example of under table politics.”

County administrator Eric Greenway absolutely has to know this.

The issue isn’t a library and ball fields. The issue is trust.

County Council members shouldn’t have to educate him, or re-educate him next month, on the total transparency necessary with every nickel and every acre in the land conservation programs.

Thankfully, Chris Hervochon was willing and able to educate the staff with what should be an intro-level lesson on the Rural and Critical Lands program and philosophy.

“I think, even if we’re doing the right thing, even if the values are one for one, even if the stormwater impact is exactly the same, the public perception of ‘you took a property, you swapped it out, did it with one vote and didn’t send it back to Rural and Critical,’ potentially breaks the trust of us, with the public, with that program.”

Amen.

Flexibility with publicly-conserved land is necessary and allowed by statute.

We have seen that kind of flexibility enable a new library on Hilton Head Island and a new animal shelter in Okatie. It was used on Hilton Head to enable a much-needed new Children’s Center building to help working families with daycare.

But the public doesn’t get it when conserved land is used for anything other than open space.

The rules for future land-use options need to be stipulated and publicly aired with each purchase.

And never, ever, under any circumstance should the government throw public trust out the window as Beaufort County did last month.

David Lauderdale may be reached at LauderdaleColumn@gmail.com.