Charleston County Council’s Finance Committee took a giant step Thursday toward protecting the beloved Angel Oak.
By endorsing the expenditure of $2.4 million of the county’s rural Greenbelt funds, members unanimously indicated they want to conserve the Johns Island landmark and the land around it. The money would help purchase 17 acres of forest abutting the nine-acre Angel Oak Park owned by the city of Charleston. The tract, being offered for $3.6 million, would be integrated with the city’s parcel, and it would be accessible to the public.
Charleston County Council should vote Tuesday to spend the money — but with a few tweaks to the Finance Committee’s recommendation.
The committee stipulated that the site be owned and operated by Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission. However, that stipulation would bar any financial assistance from the State’s Conservation Bank, which can’t contribute to a park owned by a county. The Lowcountry Open Land Trust has committed to raising the necessary $1.2 million, and had hoped to seek funding from the Conservation Bank.
County PRC could, however, operate the land under a long-term lease with the Lowcountry Open Land Trust or the city of Charleston as the site’s owner.
The other tweak council should consider involves a second stipulation, that the nonprofit Carolina Homeless Veterans have access to five acres for farming.
That’s a worthy idea, but the organization would be better off with farmland. The tract in question is wet and wooded. Council should pursue the veterans’ proposal separately.
To understand what the majestic Angel Oak means to people, consider the intense grassroots efforts that have been made over a four-year period to prevent it from being choked off by too-dense development surrounding it.
By approving the $2.4 million expenditure, County Council will help ensure that the acreage is conserved forever. It is currently zoned to allow for 356 multi-family housing units — a nightmare scenario for Angel Oak lovers. They fear the additional congestion and noise would diminish people’s experience at the tranquil park, and they fear runoff could impair the tree.
The purchase would be a triumph for the community — and will require community support to raise the money needed to add to the Greenbelt allocation.
And if successful, the acquisition of this property for park land could lead to an excellent follow-up opportunity. Adjacent to the 17-acre tract is another of similar size that is also zoned for dense development. If this initial campaign is successful, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust would explore the possibility of buying that tract as well to further buffer the tree and expand the public’s access to its natural surroundings.
Conserving the property is important to many people for many different reasons.
The tree is one of the oldest living things in South Carolina. It is a symbol of the beautiful, rural environment that still dominates much of Johns Island. It is a favorite place for families and for couples getting engaged and for photographers.
Just across Bohicket Road is Haut Gap Middle School whose students would enjoy access to a natural classroom.
And it is a place where Native Americans met and later where freed slaves went for picnics. Local civil rights leader Septima Clark said in 1980 that the tree “is sacred because of the stories black people have heard from their early days.” But she also said that when segregation was at its height, “the Angel Oak was not segregated.”
Generations have tended to and protected the Angel Oak. This is no time to stop.