The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission has approved a $304,000 consulting contract related to the purchase of historic McLeod Plantation, and is laying the groundwork for a large bond issue to finance the deal.

The PRC agreed in October to buy the plantation property from Historic Charleston Foundation for $3.3 million, with plans to restore the site and open it to public use.

The true cost to the PRC appears to be about $6 million, when the cost of work needed to stabilize and repair the property is included.

The commission expects to close on the deal by Feb. 28.

In the meantime, the PRC's elected board on Monday unanimously voted for a contract with the Jaeger Co., whose principal Dale Jaeger had worked on a 1991 study of McLeod for Historic Charleston. The consultant will help the PRC lay plans for stabilizing the plantation buildings after the sale closes, and will prepare construction bid documents for the work.

"A lot of different studies have been done on McLeod," said Tom O'Rourke, executive director of the PRC. "We said in our proposal that we would use Dale Jaeger and continue the studies that had already been done, and continue using the person Historic Charleston had already been using."

The Jaeger Co. previously was hired by the PRC for master planning and design work involving Lighthouse Inlet at the northern end of Folly Beach, and on Cummings Point at the tip of Morris Island.

With McLeod, one of the first tasks will be to assemble a large steering committee that will decide the guiding principles for the plantation's use, O'Rourke said. Many of the groups expected to participate in the committee have been identified, but not the specific individuals, he said.

"Within the following year, we would finalize the master plan, in a public process with the steering committee," said Julie Hensley, PRC's director of planning.

She said the commission expects to spend about $2.7 million stabilizing and repairing McLeod Plantation buildings.

Completion of the PRC's purchase of McLeod would end a multi-year saga over the future of the last plantation on James Island. The 38-acre McLeod tract near the intersection of Folly Road and Maybank Highway includes the plantation's 1853 main house, five slave cottages and several outbuildings.

Historic Charleston had previously, and controversially, sold McLeod to the American College of the Building Arts, which resulted in a legal challenge by the group Friends of McLeod. The college controlled the property for five years then sold it back to Historic Charleston, which then attempted to sell the property to College of Charleston Foundation -- quickly drawing criticism because the plan involved intramural playing fields.

The town of James Island then offered to buy the property, and when rebuffed, attempted to seize the plantation through condemnation only to drop that effort three months later. Finally, two months ago Historic Charleston agreed to sell the property to the PRC.

For the PRC, McLeod will be the latest in a flurry of property deals worth more than $40 million, most of them financed by the voter-approved half-cent sales tax for transportation and green-space projects.

The commission's share of the half-cent money was $36 million to spend on land purchases -- an amount that will have been exhausted when the PRC completes a $20 million joint park purchase with the town of Mount Pleasant that's expected to close by the end of the year.

With the half-cent funds gone, the PRC plans to tap its fund balances to buy McLeod Plantation, and is preparing to issue bonds to replenish those reserves.

O'Rourke said the purchases and the borrowing will not result in an increase in property taxes. The PRC is among the entities that collect property tax in Charleston County, with the commission's taxes accounting for about 5 percent of each property tax bill.

O'Rourke said the PRC has $12 million in reserves right now, but it makes sense to borrow money at low interest rates and pay it back over time, rather than depleting the commission's reserves. The commission agreed Monday to authorize a borrowing of up to $30 million, although O'Rourke said there are plans to spend $10 million or less in the near term.

A public hearing and approval by Charleston County Council would be needed prior to any bond issue.

O'Rourke said the PRC does not plan on using any borrowed money to buy additional land, beyond the deals that are now in the works or have already been completed.

"I don't foresee the need for any more land," he said. "We now have over 10,000 acres of park land."

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.