As the green runs out, Charleston County takes stock of preservation successes (copy)

An egret fishes in the creek along Bugby Plantation, a Wadmalaw Island property protected from development by a conservation easement funded by Charleston County's Greenbelt Program. Staff/File

Urban greenspaces and rural conservation easements will now be equally funded in Charleston County, marking a major change for a program created to help offset urban sprawl. 

County Council voted 5-4 on Tuesday to change the formula for how funds are distributed in the greenbelt program, transferring $40 million from the rural conservation budget to the budget for urban projects.

The county’s greenbelt program was created in 2004 when voters approved the first half-cent sales tax, and it was renewed in 2016 with the approval of another half-cent sales tax. While the tax has primarily funded traffic improvements, a portion of the proceeds was set aside for greenspace purchases to act as a check on development pressures that tend to follow the creation of new roads. 

Since its inception, 70 percent of its funds have gone to conserving rural properties and 30 percent to urban projects, such as public parks. Now, the pool of $210 million will be evenly distributed between urban and rural, a change local governments favored and that conservationists adamantly opposed.

The change was recommended by the Greenbelt Advisory Board, whose members are appointed by elected officials in the county, Mount Pleasant, Charleston and North Charleston.

Everyone who spoke during the public comment period opposed changing the formula. They argued that although the program had been largely successful at protecting rural land, many rural areas were more threatened by development than they had been in 2004. The program so far has protected about 30 percent of the land in Charleston County. 

"Rural funding is needed now more than ever for the benefits it provides for growth management, flood mitigation and traffic management as well as the conservation of ecologically, culturally and historically important land," said Joe Boykin of Johns Island.

Others agreed, arguing that African-American settlement communities would be especially vulnerable under the proposed 50-50 split. 

Councilman Elliott Summey, who said he had been undecided until Tuesday, possibly broke the tie with his "yes" vote. He said protecting settlement communities within urban areas, such as the Phillips Community in Mount Pleasant, is getting more expensive because that's where land values are higher. 

"If we’re going to get serious about slowing things down, we’ve got to do it in both," he said. 

Councilmembers Dickie Schweers, Anna Johnson, Joe Qualey and Herb Sass voted against it. 

"If it's not broken, don’t fix it," Qualey said, adding he was particularly concerned that the urban funds could be used to pay for public restrooms and other facilities, which he felt contradicted the purpose of the program.

Councilman Brantley Moody said rural areas will still see $105 million. He said urban municipalities are generating much of the half-cent sales tax revenue, and should get an equal share of the money. 

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Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.