MOUNT PLEASANT — The largest undeveloped property in the East Cooper area, a working farm since the 1600s that's now surrounded by modern subdivisions, has been permanently protected from development.
For $7.1 million, Charleston County taxpayers have purchased the development rights to Boone Hall Plantation, which covers about 600 acres in what's become the heart of Mount Pleasant.
It's a deal made possible by the generosity of the owners, who could have sold the property to developers for far more.
The McRae family, which bought Boone Hall Plantation in 1955, walked away from an estimated $21 million by agreeing to permanently restrict the use of the property instead of selling the land to developers, according to the Lowcountry Land Trust.
“What were we going to do with that much money?" said Willie McRae, who with his sister Elizabeth Petersen owns the property.
It was not a hard decision, he said.
“No, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do," McRae said Monday.
The deal — negotiated over the course of many months earlier this year — puts the property under a conservation easement that permanently limits its use without changing the ownership. Instead of potentially becoming the site of 1,800 new homes, Boone Hall will continue as a working farm, an historic site with Civil War earthworks and a venue for festivals and weddings.
"It’s a perpetual agreement that Boone Hall won’t ever be developed," said McRae, 65, who lives in a house there. "That’s basically what we wanted out of it."
He said the more than $5.1 million paid from the Charleston County Greenbelt Fund and $2 million more from the S.C. Conservation Bank will be used to improve some elements of the property and create a foundation to run it after the family members are gone.
“We’re going to have some better facilities, and areas for education and wildlife," McRae said. “The money they are giving us, we’re going to put that back into the plantation."
When McRae's family bought the property, it sat in a rural part of the East Cooper area, well removed from the town. Mount Pleasant then was centered around Old Village area and had several thousand residents. Today, it has about 90,000 residents, and the town limits extend north to Awendaw.
McRae's mother lived in the main house at Boone Hall until her death in 1996. Visitors pay $24 to tour the house and grounds, which include nine original dwellings on "Slave Street" where enslaved plantation workers lived.
The property is also the site of several popular events, from food-themed gatherings such as the Strawberry Festival and Oyster Festival, to seasonal happenings such as Fright Nights at Halloween and the Scottish Games and Highland Gathering.
For preservationists and people worried about over-development, the sheer size of the property combined with its history made it a compelling land-protection deal.
“Of all the greenbelt projects I have ever seen, this one, to me, is the very best and what the program should be,” County Council Chairman Elliott Summey said in August, when the council's Finance Committee voted 7-0 to recommend the deal. The deal was approved days later, but it took until November to get all the paperwork signed and filed.
Boone Hall Plantation sits across Boone Hall Creek from Palmetto Islands County Park, and the conservation deal adds 1.5 miles of creek frontage to the protected lands along Horlbeck and Boone Hall creeks.
“It’s always been a magical place for me," McRae said, "and I hope it will be for others, for generations to come."