An article in the Dec. 1 Post and Courier raised the question of using County Rural Greenbelt funds for conservation easements on private land as opposed to purchasing land, known as “fee simple” funding. The article also addressed the issue of public access on Greenbelt funded properties. The article implied that purchased land allows public access and private easements do not.
The Johns Island Conservancy has done a detailed analysis of the 80 rural projects funded so far using the data from the Greenbelt Bank’s website (www.smallchangeforbigchange.org) and concluded that is not the case.
While almost 100 percent of the fee simple purchases will allow some future public access, only 44 percent of the dollars already spent were for projects that have been opened, and 60 percent of those allow only limited access.
By contrast, approximately 12 percent of the conservation easement funding allows some public access. The Legare Farms easement would allow limited public access.
Public access for recreational and educational opportunities is not the only public good served by Rural Greenbelt investments. Some of the other common objectives of a greenbelt program are:
• Protect natural environments and wildlife;
• Improve air and water quality;
• Protect the unique character of rural communities.
In deciding the use of Greenbelt funds, County Council should consider and balance all these objectives. They should consider the financial value the public gets for each dollar spent. That value is determined by the cost per acre of land preserved and the matching funds by other organizations and individuals.
So far about 70 percent of the Greenbelt money spent has been on projects that allow public access. Only 30 percent has been spent on conservation easements that meet the other objectives of a greenbelt program.
The Greenbelt cost per acre of public access property has been $13,081. The cost per acre of property that meets the other objectives has been $1,622 — about eight times greater dollar value per acre.
The matching funds for projects that allow public access have been about dollar for dollar; matching funds for conservation easements have been about three to one. Surely these dollar amounts should be considered when reviewing the value of each of the Greenbelt objectives.
The Legare Farms project will allow limited public access and includes an almost 2 to 1 matching value. The Greenbelt cost per acre for the conservation easement on this property is $3,000. That is greater than other properties but well within the “value” of properties that allow limited access.
In addition, the property is on the border of the urban growth boundary in a rising real estate market adding to both its cost and value. It will serve the Greenbelt objectives of a larger and closer population than other easement projects.
The article also addressed an issue some councilmen might have with property owner Thomas Legare, since he opposed council’s controversial plan to extend I-526 across Johns Island. Lowcountry Open Land Trust Executive Director Elizabeth Hagood said it best before the council two weeks ago, “It’s about the land, not the landowner.”
One council member feels that the Legares are not likely to sell to a developer, so why spend money to protect it? That is simply wrong. They will sell.
At some point in the near future, the difference between the agricultural value of the property and the development value will become so great that the Legares or subsequent landowners will build 300, 500 or 1,000 homes.
If a developer gets hold of the property, what chance will there be for any public access? This conservation easement will permanently prevent that, preserve the property for the benefit of all the residents of Charleston County and provide the opportunity for limited public access.
Colin Cuskley is executive director of the Johns Island Conservancy.