The lawsuit filed on Aug. 15 by BP Amoco Chemical Company against the massive, 9,000-acre Cainhoy Plantation development and the City of Charleston illustrates a larger and increasingly important reality - as growth accelerates across the country, there are places that should be off limits to residential subdivision. The backyard of a chemical plant is surely one of those.

This year's fires in the drought-parched West have destroyed hundreds of homes in the states of Washington, Oregon, and California, and threatened thousands more. Scores of beachfront homes and condominiums in the Carolinas and other coastal states have fallen victim to the inexorable advance of the ocean. In the vast majority of cases, these losses could have been avoided had communities adopted more responsible land use policies.

Former director of the National Park Service, Roger Kennedy, wrote extensively about this phenomenon, which he called "sprawling into danger." Kennedy blamed public investment in new road construction and other infrastructure, poor land use planning and lax zoning, and financial incentives for accelerating this dangerous trend. These all apply to the City of Charleston's approval of the Cainhoy project.

Building homes in hazardous areas imposes enormous financial burdens on taxpayer funded disaster-relief and insurance programs. And, as witnessed by the destruction in the West this year, it places the lives and primary assets of American families in jeopardy.

Another implication of building housing in the wrong place may seem less immediate, but it is profoundly important. Sprawling development on the edges of actively managed farms and forests often curtails critical land management practices. The proposed Cainhoy development is a case in point.

Cainhoy Plantation's northern border along Flagg Creek is shared with BP, which actively manages its nearly 6,000 acres of protected forests and wetlands. Along two miles of Cainhoy Road, the plantation's eastern border is shared by the 250,000-acre Francis Marion National Forest, which is home to numerous threatened and endangered species as well as miles of hiking, biking, and canoeing trails. Perhaps the single most important forest management tool that BP and the Forest Service have is prescribed burning.

Every year, Forest Service employees carefully set fire to the understory of thousands of acres of longleaf pine. This minimizes the spread of pests and diseases, removes exotic and invasive species, recycles nutrients back into the soil, and promotes the growth of plants - thereby sustaining the native ecosystem. Prescribed burning also reduces the risk of catastrophic fires of the sort that rage through Florida's forests and prairies, destroying homes and closing interstates. Residential development on the edge of the National Forest and the BP plant, and in proximity to other private timber tracts, will potentially eliminate the ability of these landowners to use this essential management practice.

Eventually, however, these forests will burn. We have seen this play out time after time. Without a regular regime of prescribed fire mirroring historical conditions, the results could be catastrophic both for the forest and for the neighborhoods nearby.

BP is one of our region's most important employers. For almost 40 years, the chemical plant has been a responsible corporate neighbor to the historic plantations along the Cooper River and to the Francis Marion National Forest. They have been leaders in wildlife management, restoring and maintaining critical habitat on their own property, and sharing their management knowledge and experience with other industrial and individual landowners. In addition, the BP Foundation gave a substantial partnership grant to the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, the Center for Birds of Prey, and SEWE to protect the natural and wildlife corridor from the Cooper River to the Francis Marion National Forest and the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

Ultimately, for the economy of the tri-county region, for taxpayers, and for the ecological and recreational assets of the National Forest, the northern portion of Cainhoy Plantation should be maintained in a forested state with limited subdivision. Fortunately, there are dozens of ways this could happen without harming the financial value of the land.

So far, neither the City of Charleston nor the Cainhoy developers have taken the steps necessary to ensure a safe and economically secure future for the region. BP's legal challenge to this risky development on their border is both an appropriate action to protect their investment and a necessary step to ensure the safety of future residents of the Cainhoy area.

But this debate does not need to end with a legal battle.

There is still time for everyone - the developers, the city, BP, the Forest Service, and the local community - to agree on an outcome that benefits the region for decades to come.

Natalie Olson is a land use project manager for the Coastal Conservation League.