To understand the pivotal importance of preserving the Cainhoy Plantation landscape to conservationists, it helps to remember Poplar Grove.

Developers plan to place a “mixed use” of businesses, residences — including more than 19,000 homes — and some parks across approximately 5,000 high-ground acres of the 9,000-acre Cainhoy Plantation tract near Daniel Island. The land has been kept for years as a hunting preserve by the industrialist Guggenheim family.

It’s a huge swath of woods and wetlands along the Wando River where the industrial corridor gives out on Clements Ferry Road. It’s a place where rare birds are spotted and remains of an historic 19th century roadway can be found.

A decade ago, at Poplar Grove in Dorchester County near Ravenel, developers planned to build 5,000 homes on 4,500 acres of pineland just beyond the city of Charleston, at the marsh edge of remote Rantowles Creek and only a few wetland-and-forest miles south of the renowned Ashley River historic plantation district.

Each development brought opposition from conservationists and the broader community, not so much because of what it is as where it is. The properties each are on a fringe of the Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties’ urban core, in places where suburbs give way to the traditional plantation and forest uses, along riverlands.

As those areas go, the groups say, so does the ability to conserve adjacent areas and eventually the wetlands-and-woods countryside that makes the place.

“The people in my area are committed to land conservation for the beauty, the history, the wildlife, the open space,” said Richard Coen, of Halidon Hill Plantation in the East Cooper River plantation district near the Cainhoy tract. Their ability to do that, with needed but not-always-welcomed management techniques such as managed burns, “depends on how the (Cainhoy) development unfolds.”

Momentum

Conservationists such as the Lowcountry Open Land Trust want to work with the Cainhoy developers to assure that it becomes what Elizabeth Hagood, trust executive director, called a transition area between the suburbs and open land.

“It does spur additional (conservation) easements when you have a key property developed and conserved,” she said. When country landowners see a large-tract neighbor trading off potential development profits to keep the land the way it is, they are more inclined to do so, she said.

That sort of momentum had just started to roll through the East Cooper area. Boeing purchased and turned over for preservation nearly 4,000 acres of the Keystone, Nebo and Fairlawn tracts, as required mitigation for filling wetlands at its North Charleston complex. The tracts are in the East Cooper countryside near Cainhoy Plantation in Berkeley County.

All three properties were rife for development. The 4,500-acre Keystone tract alone had been slated at one time for 6,500 homes to be built.

Push-back

The need for that momentum was driven home by what happened at Poplar Grove. The plans for a dense development there roused wide opposition from an unlikely cadre of farmers, hunters, conservationists and everyday residents who just didn’t want their country lifestyle ripped into.

Their push-back led to a scaled-down, “greener” Poplar Grove. The rallied community helped conservation groups raise $10 million from private foundations and state grants to pay for conservation easements, essentially contracts that restrict how much of a property can be developed.

Instead of 5,000 homes, now only 450 homes can be built. The development is now under construction, although sales have been slow. The rural nature of the place has been maintained.

Poplar Grove was a watershed moment. It led to conservation easements signed by plantation owners upstream that solidified the Ashley River Historic District. And MeadWestvaco, the timber company that originally sold the Poplar Grove land, bought back a similar district tract, Watson Hill, and announced plans for “green,” or nature-based, development across nearly 80,000 acres of timberland between the Ashley and Edisto rivers.

The line

That’s what conservationists would like to see happen at Cainhoy Plantation. It’s on the eastern edge of an East Cooper area where 9,000 acres of private lands already have been conserved, but another 9,000 acres have not. Keystone is on the western edge.

Conservationists want to keep the momentum going that was galvanized by Boeing and others. Too much development of Cainhoy Plantation could be a stomp on the brakes.

Some compromise is seemingly doable, for the right price.

There’s nothing in the development plan that prevents areas from being conserved, said Matt Sloan, who is representing Cainhoy Land & Timber, the development company. The company is in ongoing talks with conservation groups, he said.

But they’re talking from opposite sides of the profit line between the developed end of Clements Ferry Road and the plantation landscape the conservationists want to preserve.

“Just keep in mind that we are (developing) this infill property connecting the city (of Charleston) and Mount Pleasant. It’s a busy place,” Sloan added.

Hagood said that while the Cainhoy Plantation happens to be in the city of Charleston’s jurisdiction, it’s in a traditional plantation area where millions of dollars already have been invested in conservation.

“Environment and business interests should not be in conflict,” she said. “It’s important that where we build be planned in connection to what we protect.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.