In the ever-present tug-of-war between conservationists and developers, it is often the public that stands to lose the most.
Fortunately, Charleston County voters in 2004 said, loud and clear, that they wanted to conserve green space — and they’d pay more in taxes to do it.
It has worked well. Until now.
A majority of Charleston County Council has indicated it will no longer use Greenbelt money for easements. But purchasing property would cost the public more and deliver less for their conservation dollars.
Recently, council refused to pay Thomas Legare and his family $900,000 for a conservation easement that would have protected their 314-acre Johns Island farm from ever being developed.
The Greenbelt Bank Board endorsed the easement. Conservationists spoke enthusiastically about it as a way to stand up to intense development pressures on Johns Island.
But council said no.
Council members Henry Darby, Vic Rawl, Teddie Pryor and Anna Johnson have said that, unless the public has access to the property in question, public money shouldn’t be spent on it. Elliott Summey sided with them.
They miss the whole point of conservation easements, which can be purchased for a fraction of what it would take to purchase a much smaller piece of property outright and put a park on it.
Mr. Legare’s farm does regularly invite the public for events — a pumpkin patch, school group tours, mud runs and battle reenactments.
But, as he explained to reporter Diane Knich, it would be unsafe for the public to have unfettered access to a working farm, its animals and machinery.
So instead of ensuring that a piece of Johns Island’s agricultural heritage is preserved, council is pushing the Legares toward selling their property for development.
That would be a loss to future generations. When natural tracts are developed for housing, wildlife, birds and native plants can lose their homes.
So as more and more rural land is covered with houses, the chances of spotting ibises, cowbirds and painted buntings in the area become fewer and fewer.
Suburban sprawl has become so prevalent that some people forget what “rural” means.
Tourists flock to Charleston and businesses are drawn here in part because of the area’s natural beauty. That’s good for the economy.
Since the 1830s, the Legare family has grown crops and raised livestock on their farm off River Road. But farming is in jeopardy in the coastal area. The yields are uncertain and it’s hard work. More money and a life of leisure are a huge temptation.
Charleston County Council has used a lot of Greenbelt money wisely, and the county is better for it. Buying easements saves signature landscapes, while the property continues to be productively used. And the taxes keep rolling in.
It would be a tragedy if council holds fast to the misguided notion that conservation easements are not worthy of Greenbelt money. In this instance, it would deprive residents of an irreplaceable resource.