Watson Hill has been a rallying cry for advocates of conservation and historic preservation for five years, and finally there is something to cheer about. Its purchase by MeadWestvaco will provide for the limited development broadly sought for the historic district along Ashley River Road.
Instead of an inappropriate resort-residential development of 5,000 dwellings, there will likely be a modest development of several hundred homes, as envisioned by Dorchester County Council.
Ironically, MeadWestvaco's original sale of the timberland to a developer in 2004 sparked the public outcry. Opposition to those plans grew in strength until Dorchester County Council became convinced of the necessity for greater protections. Council ultimately approved a historic district with zoning that limited development on thousands of acres.
But the prospective developer of Watson Hill took the controversial move of annexing it to North Charleston, which was willing to accommodate a comparatively dense development, and the dispute moved to court.
The property still remains within the city limits of North Charleston, but MeadWestvaco envisions something far more appropriate for the site. The 6,500-acre tract is expected to largely retain its rural character.
That's essential for the historic district, which includes adjacent Middleton Place and nearby Magnolia Plantation and Drayton Hall, each nationally recognized for its importance. An inappropriate development at Watson Hill would have diminished those historic properties, which are among those most often visited by tourists to the Lowcountry.
"We've had such a major threat hanging over our head," said George McDaniel, executive director of Drayton Hall. "Had we lost, think of the domino effect."
Making infrastructure available to Watson Hill would have encouraged the development of nearby tracts. It also would have increased the pressure to widen two-lane Ashley River Road, one of the state's oldest thoroughfares. The tree-lined corridor can retain its scenic appearance if density along the road is kept at a manageable level.
MeadWestvaco's decision to repurchase the property, following foreclosure of the tract, brings a sense of great relief to those who have long struggled to preserve the integrity of the historic area. The company deserves the community's thanks for committing its resources to resolve the issue.
Because of what was at stake, Watson Hill was instrumental in creating a public awareness about growth issues in general, particularly in Dorchester County. As Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, explained, the dispute over Watson Hill "woke us up to focus on an area right under our noses that we really hadn't been paying attention to."
Individuals, preservation groups and neighborhood associations fought against the overdevelopment of Watson Hill, and in doing so, encouraged the creation of the historic district. They also forced a recognition among Dorchester officials about the perils of growth. Voters made changes to the makeup of County Council, which subsequently endorsed a remarkably good comprehensive plan to direct development where appropriate.
The issues raised by the annexation of Watson Hill, however, underscore the necessity of better regional planning. The Watson Hill victory deserves to be celebrated.
It also should encourage a renewed effort for more cooperation among local governments to prevent another planning travesty in the future.
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