MONCKS CORNER — The Cooper River Historic District, which starts just outside town and winds for several miles along the river's scenic east and west branches, has a profoundly rich past and an uncertain future.

It's South Carolina's largest historic district in sheer size, covering more than 30,000 acres — about 46 square miles. It's the site of former rice plantations that were crucial to building the wealth and influence Charleston enjoyed before the Civil War.

Cooper River Historic District

The properties have remained largely intact since after the war ended, as most gradually made a transition from agriculture to hunting retreats and, in one case, a Trappist monastery.

But Berkeley County's rapid growth, with tens of thousands of new homes already approved, is beginning to arrive at the district's doorstep — from Gippy Plantation on the north, where a developer hopes to build up to 1,200 homes, to the vast, undeveloped Cainhoy Plantation property at the south.

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Work continues on homes in the new Simons Bluff subdivision at Spring Grove Plantation in Berkeley County on Monday, March 11, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Newly elected Supervisor Johnny Cribb said he would hate the unintended consequences of growth to harm the county's rural parts, but he also said some property owners there are looking to sell.

Conservationists said the county should consider new tools, such as policies to direct suburban growth to where it's welcome and even a local source of money for land conservation.

“This is the heart of Southern antebellum society. It’s a tremendously historic area,” said Raleigh West, executive director of the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust. "It's important to maintain the integrity of this area in order to better understand the unique history — the good and the bad — of the Lowcountry."

“You don’t get another bite at the apple once it’s gone.”

'So special and so hidden'

Much of the Cooper River Historic District is not publicly accessible, so it can be challenging for the public to understand what's here.

Middleberg Plantation, one of the state's oldest surviving homes, can be seen partly from Cainhoy Road, but most historic structures are largely invisible from public roads or even from the river.

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Many features of the Cooper River Historic District are hidden from view, but the Middleberg Plantation home is an exception, partly visible from Cainhoy Road. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Katherine Pemberton of Historic Charleston Foundation has explored most of it. She wrote the district's National Register nomination two decades ago, and she noted its remoteness has helped protect it.

"You're in the car and it feels just like you're passing trees. Unless you really know what's there, it's hard to fathom," she said. "It's so special and so hidden, but it can so quickly be impacted in a negative way."

One of the best views of the historic landscape is from the privately owned Halidon Hill, where old rice fields have been restored to attract ducks for hunters. Its vast impoundments block the view of the Cooper River and create an open expanse of water, small levees and distant trees. The landscape is both natural and man-made at once.

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Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Moncks Corner, can be seen in the foreground amid the western branch of the Cooper River on Monday, March 11, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

“We don’t think of plantation landscapes as industrial, but in a way they kind of were," she said.

Nearby, the Quinby Plantation House stands. The Federal-style house is more than two centuries old. It was moved 4 miles to this site in the 1950s in order to save it from demolition.

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The privately-owned Quinby plantation home was moved to Halidon Hill in the 1950s to save it from demolition. It's surrounded by large oak trees and restored rice fields. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Pemberton noted the amount of earth that enslaved people moved to create these fields has been likened to the construction of Egypt's pyramids.

“It was an amazing feat," she said. "It fundamentally changed the entire landscape of the area.”

The looming question is how the landscape will continue to change.

Will they listen?  

Those approaching the district from the north will notice a series of small signs dotting the roads, each reading, "Save Gippy! Stop the annexation."

Kristin Martin and her husband Dustin Hockman recently moved into their historic Gippy home, an 1852 mansion on 5 acres outside Moncks Corner.

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A sign aiming to stop the annexation of Gippy Plantation into the town of Moncks Corner is placed outside the historic plantation home on Monday, March 11, 2019. The annexation would allow a developer to build about 1,200 homes on the historic property. Lauren Petracca/Staff

A few months later, they learned a developer wanted to annex hundreds of acres into the town, which would allow them to build about 1,200 homes, about twice as many than if they're in the county.

When Pemberton began work on the vast project to create the Cooper River Historic District, her early version included almost three times as much area. When some Berkeley officials pushed back, the district ultimately was whittled down to its present size.

One of the areas removed was around Gippy Plantation. Its inclusion wouldn't have staved off the current dispute, but it would have given some ammunition to those who don't want to see more than 1,000 new homes there.

"The development would just be devastating because this has had so much history," Martin said. "It needs to be respected."

By one estimate, about 70 percent of the Cooper River Historic District has been protected through easements, land sales or other steps. While there's already been much success, a loss or two could have a big impact, West said.

"It doesn’t take much to disrupt the aesthetics and quality of the area," he said. "You can have 5,000 acres protected, but if right in the heart of it there’s 500 acres of dense suburban development, that has a degrading impact of the ecology and aesthetics of the region.”

Town Council is expected to hold a public hearing on the Gippy annexation in April and make its decision sometime after that. Jason Crowley of the Coastal Conservation League has helped drum up opposition, but many opponents, including the Martins, live outside the town.

"Are they going to listen to us? I don't know," Martin said.

Future questions

Many expect the Cooper River Historic District soon will share something in common with the state's second largest, the Ashley River Historic District, which covers about 23,000 acres along Charleston's other major river.

The district has twice been placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 11 most endangered list, largely because of concerns over suburban development in and around it. An annexation fight is winding its way through the courts over the future of 2,200 acres there.

Being a National Register district provides very little protection — and only comes into play when federal dollars or permits are involved. Even then, historic sites can be removed as long as the project mitigates their loss.

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A wood stork flies over a restored rice field near at Halidon Hill in the Cooper River Historic District on Monday, March 11, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Berkeley County officials recently floated the idea of a growth boundary, but it didn't get much traction.

Conservation — private landowners voluntarily keeping their land rural, often in exchange for compensation or tax breaks — might be a more politically promising preservation route.

There's much more at stake than history, Crowley said. Encroaching development could limit the ability to do control burns necessary to manage the forests; increase regional flooding during heavy rains; and erode the river's water quality.

At the southern end of the district, the owners of the 9,000-acre Cainhoy Plantation have said they intend to protect about half the tract — nearly the size of the Charleston peninsula — from development.

The conserved area along Clements Ferry and Cainhoy roads is set to include a nearly 500-acre nature sanctuary, a 100-acre buffer along Cainhoy Road and about 3,500 other acres of marshland, highlands, wetlands and upland buffers.

The Conservation Trust as well as the Coastal Conservation League applauded the move, but they hope to add more.

"This is the opportunity to look at the big picture of what is Berkeley County and its future moving forward," Crowley said. "Gippy seems like the domino that could all on one end and Cainhoy would be the domino that falls on the other end."

It's unclear what Berkeley will be able to do. Unlike Beaufort or Charleston counties, Berkeley has no local source of money earmarked for conservation.

“Moncks Corner sometime soon will connect with Goose Creek, which connects with North Charleston. It’s becoming a megalopolis of sorts," West said. "We need to do what we can to secure these corridors while we have time.”

While Gippy may seem to be the only immediate threat, development pressures are causing land prices to rise across the board. 

“It really is a function of time. If we don’t secure these properties, then at some point, as Charleston evolves into this world city that it’s increasingly becoming, they will be at risk," West added. "It’s better to do it now, before they’re entitled to development and you’re competing with bulldozers.”

Pompion Hill Chapel

The Pompion Hill Chapel sits along the eastern branch of the Cooper River, part of the Cooper River Historic District that remains very well preserved. Monday, March 11, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

A moment of reflection

The best place to visit the Cooper River Historic District is also Berkeley County's most visited spot: Mepkin Abbey.

Once a vast plantation owned by wealthy colonist and patriot Henry Laurens, the property later was owned by the Luce family, whose wealth derived from magazines such as Time, Life and Sports Illustrated.

That family donated the land to the Catholic Church, and Mepkin Abbey opened here by the 1960s. The property includes the Laurens family cemetery, a slave cemetery and a garden by renowned landscape architect Loutrel Briggs.

In recent years, Mepkin has played a leadership role in conserving its property and encouraging neighbors to follow suit. For its monks and others who journey here, quiet is essential.

Father Joe Tedesco, the abbey's superior, said he is concerned about how nearby development ultimately could impact Mepkin. While he understand that property owners have rights, he noted they also are part of a community.

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"There's a value to humanity to have nature," says Father Joe Tedesco, who is concerned about how nearby development could impact Mepkin Abbey. "If we have developed everywhere, we lost something." Lauren Petracca/Staff

"The owners belong to the community. It's not about me, it's about where I fit in in the community," he said. "This is our place, our community and we need it to be a certain way to have a productive, beautiful life. The land is so important to us and our whole spirituality."

Tedesco noted one of Mepkins' recent visitors included a man from New Jersey who found the abbey's nature and quiet an abrupt and welcome change. As he sees it, the question is whether future generations will get a similar chance.

"There's a value to humanity to have nature," Tedesco said. "If we have developed everywhere, we lose something."

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.