A coastal conservation group recently locked in a first-of-its-kind deal that could prevent 628 acres in the ecologically sensitive ACE Basin from being developed into a factory, high-density housing or suburban strip mall.
The deal is known as a conservation easement — a voluntary contract that prevents a property's current or future owners from altering the land in certain ways.
But unlike similar deals that have been struck in the Lowcountry, this one comes with one big caveat: It still allows the property to be used to construct and maintain a large solar farm.
The contract is believed to the first of its kind in South Carolina, but conservationists believe it could serve as a model for other groups to protect swaths of the state from sprawl and other types of development far into the future.
The Beaufort County Open Land Trust agreed to the unique setup last year with the property's owner, Seabrook Land Enterprises LLC, which is an affiliate of Adger Solar.
The property at the center of the agreement is just off S.C. Highway 21 on the way to Beaufort.
The land was previously home to a vegetable farm. Several years ago Adger bought it with plans to build one of South Carolina's newest utility-scale solar arrays on it.
The panels that are currently being installed on the property could be used for decades by Dominion Energy, which signed a lease with Adger, to power homes and businesses in Charleston and Beaufort.
Kristin Williams, executive director of the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, said the easement serves her organization's purpose of protecting land from more invasive forms of commercial development.
The easement will remain in effect even if the new solar farm is eventually abandoned or removed, she noted.
"We're not looking at just the next 20 years," Williams said. "We’re looking at the next 100 years."
The power project at the site includes rows of solar panels installed on metal posts and dirt roads that will be used to service the equipment.
The new easement prohibits much of the property from being paved over. The deal also mandates Adger create a vegetative buffer between the solar farm and Highway 21.
That requirement will protect the view from the scenic highway, which Williams called the "gateway into Beaufort County."
Bill Moore, the principal for Adger Solar, said the idea for the conservation easement was created after discussions between his company and environmental groups, including the ACE Basin Task Force.
Moore said conservation interests wanted to make sure the land couldn't be redeveloped for another commercial use if the array is removed in the future.
The property is near other lands already protected by easements organized by the Beaufort County Open Land Trust. The ground drains into the wider ACE Basin, which is home to a large number of native plant, bird and fish species and takes its name from the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers.
Charles Lane, chairman of the ACE Basin Taskforce, praised the new easement and believes it could be replicated in other parts of South Carolina.
He said the deal was discussed at a recent meeting of the South Carolina Land Trust Network, which is made up of the 28 land conservancies in the state.
"It sets a precedent for future solar farms, limits sprawl and prompts good strong buffers," Lane said.
Conservation easements can also offer substantial financial benefits to the property owners — in this case Adger.
State and federal income tax deductions or credits are available for property owners who agree to prohibit certain development on their land, based on the idea that they've agreed to forfeit or donate some of the underlying value. The amount of the benefit is based on the difference between what the land was worth for development purposes, and what it's worth with legally binding restrictions.
Moore said tax considerations were not a primary concern in Adger's easement. The biggest benefit for the company, he said, was local community support for the solar project.
Moore, too, thinks the new conservation easement can be copied in the future as utility-scale solar farms continue to spring up across.
“I think it will be replicated because of the environmental benefits instead of the tax benefits,” Moore said. “I would expect to see this around the country once the idea gets out.”