"For sale" signs have popped up on thousands of acres of MeadWestvaco's land in southern Dorchester County, a move that startled some residents.

Local hunt clubs that lease much of the land also have been told they might have to buy it to keep using it.

The changes signal another step in MeadWestvaco's massive 78,000-acre East Edisto project, which spans the miles of timberlands along the Edisto River from near Summerville to beyond Ravenel.

The company wants to develop a web of communities while conserving the rural character of a span so big that the Dorchester County portion of the project alone comprises one-third of the county.

East Edisto is the largest real estate development project the packaging giant has undertaken. Local leaders and conservationists have hailed its "green" emphasis on natural environs.

A major part of that emphasis is the company's goal of conserving some 75 percent of the project's property as rural land. Five years after the master plan was unveiled, though, the company still hasn't gotten that under contract.

There are, however, conservation easements in place along the Edisto River corridor at the southern end.

Dorchester County has a planned unit development agreement in place with the company that calls for restrictions on "portions of the property," according to a copy of the agreement provided by MeadWestvaco.

A similar agreement is being worked on in Charleston County, home to about 32,000 acres of the project.

Ken Seeger, MeadWestvaco president of development and land management, said deed restrictions and a conservancy to manage them are in the works and no properties will be sold until the restrictions can be included in the sales. He expects the restrictions and conservancy to be in place within four months.

Since the project was announced, the company has sold a financial interest in East Edisto and other land to Plum Creek Timber Co. for $1.1 billion. Seeger said the Plum Creek sale is not affecting plans for East Edisto.

Rural land deeds will be restricted to one building per 25 acres, 50 acres or 200 acres, depending on how removed the particular acreage is from developed areas, Seeger said.

"Yes, we have people interested in the properties," primarily for recreational uses such as hunting and to some extent timbering, he said.

"The intent is not for the nature of that area to change."

David Chinnis, chairman of the Dorchester County Council planning committee, said he is confident in the company and that the county has protections in place.

"I believe our development agreement is rock solid," he said.

The county took four years to hammer out the development agreement, down to specifics such as not wanting to foot the bill for an aquatic center, as one draft proposed.

"We went over it with a fine-tooth comb," Chinnis said. The county also has control over what develops in the area, he said, because necessary infrastructure improvements such as roads, water and sewer must be approved by council.

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