Locals scored a rare victory this week when they stopped a developer from sticking another 462 houses on decreasingly rural Johns Island.

It's a tough blow for the land- owners, but they can take solace in one thing: at least they can keep paying peanuts for property taxes.

The Wooddale Partnership LLC — which includes County Councilman Vic Rawl as one of several owners — is paying a whopping $673 a year in property taxes on 470 acres that Charleston County values at about $3.8 million.

Not a bad deal, especially when you consider they pay nearly $500 on another 1.5-acre parcel.

So, what's the difference? Well, that 470 acres holds an agricultural exemption, which taxes it at its current use value, not its market value.

That bureaucratic distinction saves them north of $40,000 a year in taxes.

Save a tree

Now, let's be clear: this is perfectly legal.

A lot of developers buy huge tracts and claim an agricultural exemption because, well, they're growing trees.

Which they usually clear-cut to build hundreds upon hundreds of suburban houses.

And, to be more clear, this exemption pre-dates Rawl's tenure on County Council by a country mile. But that's not going to stop the anti-development crowd from crying foul.

“This is an example of agricultural exemption that gives that category a bad name,” says Dana Beach of the Coastal Conservation League. “The exemption is an important and powerful tool to keep agricultural land possible.”

Now, to be fair, Beach has an agricultural exemption on a small piece of land he owns — but nobody expects the staunch environmentalist to slap up a subdivision anytime soon.

Got a new plan?

The Wooddale property has a long and tumultuous history.

Rawl's father and two other men bought the land in the 1950s and their children inherited it. In 1990, it was annexed into Charleston.

A few years back, when a developer announced plans to stick 800 houses on the land, the city promptly rezoned the land “conservation,” which means no more than one house for every 1.5 acre.

That put the kibosh on those plans real fast — and led to a lawsuit against the city and Coastal Conservation League. Wooddale lost, and appealed.

Now, it appears plans to develop the land are back again. And again, the neighbors like it about as much as Interstate 526 and the Sea Island Greenway.

The problem here for Wooddale is that the county is reviewing agricultural exemptions to make sure all those properties getting a pass actually qualify as agricultural sites — not just subdivisions-in-waiting where there happen to be trees growing.

That means Wooddale Partners may need to quickly come up with a development plan the neighbors can live with.

Otherwise their tax bill may sprout up quicker than a loblolly pine.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.