Fort Pemberton (copy)

The view of the Stono River from Peter Evans' home, which was built years ago on the top of an earthen Civil War era fortification on James Island known as Fort Pemberton. The city of Charleston is seeking $6 million from Charleston County's Greenbelt Program to buy the property off of Riverland Drive. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Deals to protect Boone Hall Plantation from development, buy the site of Fort Pemberton on James Island and fund several smaller park-related efforts in Charleston County were endorsed by a county panel Wednesday, positioning them all for approval.

Together, the five land deals would cost taxpayers more than $14 million, with most of the money coming from the county and the rest from the state.

The Boone Hall conservation plan was seen as a landmark preservation deal. The more than 600-acre property is estimated to be worth $35 million and could potentially become a huge subdivision, but for $7 million the public would get a conservation easement on the property to ensure it remains undeveloped.

According to David Ray, conservation manager for the Lowcountry Land Trust, the development rights for the property are worth four times the public funding sought, which "means that 75 percent of the easement value is being donated."

The former plantation in the center of Mount Pleasant is said to be the nation's oldest continuously operated farm. It's a tourist attraction, a festival venue and a wedding destination, and the largest piece of undeveloped land in that area.

"When I think of what a model project is, this is certainly one," said Elizabeth Hagood, a member of the county's Greenbelt Advisory Board.

Boone Hall Plantation (copy)

A former plantation, the Boone Hall property includes an exhibit of the former homes of enslaved workers, known as Slave Street. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Most of the money for the land deals would come from the county's Greenbelt Program, with the South Carolina Conservation Bank contributing $2 million to the Boone Hall deal and $400,000 to Fort Pemberton, pending legislative approvals.

Charleston County has been collecting additional sales tax since 2005, primarily to fund road construction. The Greenbelt Program gets a portion of the money to buy and protect green spaces, with a goal of creating a "green belt" around urban and suburban areas.

Boone Hall is an example of one way the program protects land by purchasing the development rights through a conservation easement. Boone Hall owner Willie McRea would continue to own the property, or he could sell it, but no more than two additional residences could be built on the property under the proposed easement.

Fort Pemberton illustrates the other way the Greenbelt Program protects land — by purchasing it and making it available for public use. With more than $6.5 million in public funds needed, buying Fort Pemberton would cost nearly as much as protecting Boone Hall, but the city of Charleston would own the less-than-9 acre historic property in Riverland Terrace and use it as a park.

Questions about the best way to use public funds to protect land, through conservation easements or outright purchases, have been debated throughout the Greenbelt Program's existence.

Fort Pemberton, where a private residence is currently located, has commanding views of the Stono River and was used strategically by the British during the Revolutionary War and by Confederate forces during the Civil War. An earthworks fort there was named after Confederate Brig. Gen. John Pemberton, commander of Charleston’s defenses.

“We envision this as a place to launch a kayak, fish or enjoy the view up and down the river," said Matt Compton, the city of Charleston's Special Projects Administrator, at a Greenbelt Advisory Board subcommittee meeting where projects were reviewed Wednesday. “We view this as an excellent opportunity to protect some passive green space and provide immediate public water access."

Greenbelt funds are divided in two parts: half for projects inside the county's urban growth boundary line and half for rural projects in outlying areas. Urban projects, the ones considered Wednesday, need to be endorsed by local governments, then reviewed by the six-member subcommittee, then the full 14-member Greenbelt Advisory Board on May 8, then Charleston County Council.

The city of Charleston, for example, endorsed the Fort Pemberton deal. Most of the money will come from the city's allocation of greenbelt funds.  

Lowcountry Oyster Festival (copy)

Thousands of people gathered for the 36th annual Lowcountry Oyster Festival held at Boone Hall Plantation, home of many festivals and large gatherings. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The Boone Hall conservation easement plan was notable because, while the property is located in unincorporated Charleston County, Mount Pleasant agreed to dedicate the town's entire amount of available urban greenbelt money — $1.7 million — to that deal. The town surrounds Boone Hall and has been actively working to restrict growth and development.

In addition to Boone Hall and Fort Pemberton, the greenbelt subcommittee endorsed plans to spend $17,000 to improve a beach path on Sullivan's Island, and spend $206,000 to buy nearly 2 acres to expand a park in the East Cooper Phillips Community. A $467,000 proposal to buy a creekfront property at Brantley Drive and Folly Road on James Island for a small park was deferred until a future meeting. 

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Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com

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