As the green runs out, Charleston County takes stock of preservation successes

An egret fishes in Church Creek. In the background is Bugby Plantation, a Wadmalaw Island property protected from development by a conservation easement funded by Charleston County's half-percent sales tax.

The $131 million pot of money for protecting land from development in Charleston County - created after voters agreed to pay higher sales tax nearly a decade ago - is just about empty.

The county's rural land program that accounted for most of the funding is now closed, the county park system has exhausted its funding as well, and about $3 million given to towns and cities for land deals in urban areas remains unspent.

While the money is all but gone, the half-percent sales tax that funds the greenbelt program, as well as road projects and mass transit, is expected to remain in place until 2030. That's because the greenbelt program borrowed money against future tax collections in order to buy land before prices would presumably increase.

Supporters of the greenbelt program say the lands that have been protected will benefit the area for generations. The program did, however, fall well short of the often-repeated goal of preserving 40,000 acres within Charleston County.

"I think that Charleston County preserving more than 21,000 acres is remarkable," said Louise Maybank, who chairs the advisory board for the greenbelt program. "I am very enthusiastic about what was accomplished."

Maybank and others say there's already been some talk about finding a way, involving additional tax money, to fund a second phase of the initiative. Along with county program Director Cathy Ruff, Maybank said the greenbelt program was never meant to protect 40,000 acres on its own.

"The greenbelt program was envisioned as one way to get to that goal," Maybank said. "It was certainly never envisioned that would be the only way to get there."

Others disagree, however, and the program's annual reports regularly listed 40,000 acres as the goal, and only counted greenbelt program land deals against that goal.

"That certainly was the goal," said Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League and a prominent supporter of the program. "There's nothing wrong with saying you did your best."

Beach describes the greenbelt program as "an unqualified success." Hugh Lane, a Charleston-area banker who helped create the state's Conservation Bank and chaired Charleston County's Greenbelt Bank Board, describes the program as "uniquely successful."

To satisfy different interest groups and constituencies, funding was used for land deals ranging from small parks in urban areas to conservation easements on large tracts of privately owned land. There also were land purchases for future county parks, and deals that help preserve local farming.

The deals ran the gamut, from the county park system's 1,628-acre purchase of land abutting the planned Long Savannah development in West Ashley, to properties smaller than an eighth of an acre purchased by North Charleston along Noisette Creek.

Among the county's elected officials, there was disagreement as the program unfolded about spending money on conservation easements, which restrict development while leaving land in private hands, versus land purchases, which are more expensive acre-for-acre but provide public access and ownership.

"I think there was a lack of understanding among some folks about why it was important to buy easements," Beach said.

Of the roughly 21,000 acres protected, nearly 13,000 acres were easement deals, primarily on Edisto and Wadmalaw islands, and near McClellanville in and around the Francis Marion National Forest.

"Collectively, I think those had a tremendous impact," Lane said. "I think protecting the entrance to Wadmalaw Island also had a tremendous impact."

Land protection was among three objectives - all of them related to the area's rapid development and population growth - targeted by the half-percent sales tax that Charleston County voters approved in 2004. The tax, which took effect the following year, will raise $1.3 billion for transportation and greenbelt projects, and mass transit funding.

The tax will generate $221 million for the greenbelt program, about $90 million of which will go toward interest on the money borrowed to buy land.

Lane said he regrets that voters were only asked to approve a half-percent sales tax because more could have been done with additional funding.

"Why they didn't do 1 percent, I don't know," he said.

The Greenbelt Bank Board was responsible for reviewing rural projects, land deals outside the county's urban growth boundary line. Rural projects got most of the money, $66.5 million, while $36 million went to the county park system for land acquisition and $28.5 million went to towns and cities for "urban" projects.

About $3 million remains in the urban program, mostly in the hands of North Charleston and James Island.

The half-percent tax money was not the only public funding that went into the greenbelt deals. There was funding from the county park system and the state Conservation Bank, and federal tax deductions and state tax credits played a role in many conservation easement deals.

The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission had $36 million in half-percent tax money to spend, for example, but actually spent $73.5 million, while nearly doubling its land holdings.

"We spent our $36 million allocation, and leveraged that with some private money, rural (half-percent tax) money, and our own money," said Julie Hensley, the park system's director of planning and resource management.

Most of the park purchases are sites that will be developed as parks in the future. One exception is a property called Bulow Landing, where the commission now owns a former hunt club that it rents out for weddings and overnight stays.

Those wanting to spend the night at The Lake House at Bulow pay a minimum of $950 for a two-night, off-season stay.

Going forward, Beach and Maybank both expect a discussion about funding additional greenbelt efforts. Lane said much has been accomplished, but there's more to be done.

"I think there's a lot more citizen consciousness here about conservation and sprawl," Lane said. "I think there is every expectation that, in time, we will have a greenbelt around the tri-county metropolitan area."

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.