Johns Island live oak slated for ‘execution’ (copy)

Preserving land as conservation easements will help protect the remaining scenic canopy on Johns Island's River Road, officials said. 

A 48-acre tract big enough to hold more than 150 new homes in a bustling area of Johns Island is instead on its way to being preserved in its natural state.

Charleston County Council’s Finance Committee voted Thursday to recommend giving the Lowcountry Land Trust up to $900,000 in Greenbelt funds to buy the River Road site, which was appraised at nearly $3.2 million last year. Full council will consider it at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Landowner Three Friars LLC, which lists as its principal James J. Kerr, is selling the land at a steep discount, officials said. Kerr could not be reached for comment Friday.

“It’s a modest investment, a fraction of the overall value,” said Ashley Demosthenes, president of Lowcountry Land Trust. “He (Kerr) is donating somewhere around 70 percent of the easement value. A ‘bargain sale’ is what we call that, and we’re proud of that too because the Land Trust always encourages landowners to put some skin in the game.”

The land has been in the Kerr family for generations, according to the Land Trust.

The conservation easement will prevent the tract, which includes six parcels, from being subdivided for further development that would additionally burden the island's already strained infrastructure, said county Greenbelt Programs Director Cathy Ruff.

“Johns Island is under tremendous amount of growth pressure, so anything that we can do to help defray some of that pressure and anxiety that people are feeling every single day is important to us,” Demosthenes said.

If the land were developed, it could have had up to 3.5 units per acre, which ultimately could add hundreds of cars daily to roadways already choked during peak traffic hours. As an easement, the tract will be limited to no more than five houses total.

Some council members were concerned the public will not have access to the site, which has 650 feet of frontage on River Road in unincorporated Charleston County.

“I generally want public access where we can do it, but this deal is just too good to pass up,” said Councilman Brantley Moody.

People often question using public money for easements that don't offer public access, Demosthenes said.

“I think what’s lost in the message about easements is the public benefit they provide,” she said. “You’ve got to have public access projects, and you have to have private conservation easement projects to provide the public benefit. You can’t do it all either one way or the other.”

The easement will preserve the scenic canopy on the road and help maintain the water quality, Ruff said.

The site shares a boundary with the 106-acre Seven Oaks conservation easement, which has 1,050 feet of River Road frontage and was purchased in 2016. That easement also offers no public access.

Three Friars is close to the proposed path for the Interstate 526 extension but will not affect any possible future construction, Ruff said. It also does not impact the "pitchfork plan" to ease traffic by adding two new roads from Maybank Highway at the foot of the Stono River bridge.

Councilwoman Anna Johnson supported the project Thursday but said she wants to study it more, while a lone dissenting vote came from Councilman Teddie Pryor.

“Basically what we are doing is using taxpayers’ dollars to prevent development,” Pryor said.  “It’s a helluva way to stop development."

The county’s Greenbelt program was created when voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 2004 to protect undeveloped land and fund public transportation and road improvements.

So far, the program has protected more than 21,170 acres of land throughout the county.

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Reach Brenda Rindge at 843-937-5713. Follow her on Twitter @brindge.

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