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Johns Island conservation easement would protect flood-prone area from development

Oakville (copy)

Once completed, the purchase of the Oakville site will be an important first step toward establishing a permanent greenbelt on Johns Island. Provided

A 94-acre property on Johns Island that was once the site of a proposed 240-home community may be protected from all future development.

Charleston City Council on April 12 approved allocating about $515,000 of its greenbelt funding toward a conservation easement for the property, known as the Oakville Tract.

Greenbelt funding is set aside by Charleston County to various municipalities in the county for conservation projects. The Lowcountry Land Trust is drafting the agreement to protect the property and matching the city's allocation using funds from a grant awarded through the state of South Carolina. 

"You wouldn’t want to be developing this site, it's very low, it's subject to flooding and it can have an impact on the overall drainage basin," Mayor John Tecklenburg said during a Charleston City Council Real Estate Committee meeting April 11.

The Charleston Aviation Authority bought two parcels of land in August, including the Oakville tract, to prevent homes from sprouting on the edge of the 1,333-acre Charleston Executive Airport next to the Stono River.

The purchases will allow the airport to widen and extend one of its runways and use the Oakville tract as an undeveloped "clear zone" or safety buffer for the runway. The most that the Aviation Authority could build on the Oakville tract under the proposed conservation easement would be a road connecting different areas of the airport to each other, said City Councilman Karl Brady who represents the area.

"I think its a huge win because the airport gets a buffer zone and we’re able to save that low-lying land," Brady said.

The 94-acre Oakville tract is mostly located in the city of Charleston but is partially within the county. It is also located entirely within the urban growth boundary, an area where higher density of development is allowed on Johns Island. The low-lying piece of land is also on Burden Creek. Preserving it from development will allow runoff to continue downstream rather than be blocked by homes, roads and businesses.

"There would have been a lot of repercussion upstream," said Johns Island Taskforce Chairman John Zlogar of the previous proposal to build homes on the property. The task force was established in 2013 to bring together residents and local officials to address Johns Island-specific issues. 

The Charleston Aviation Authority bought the Oakville tract and another 43-acre tract for $7.7 million. Out of that, $4.9 million went to the developers of the proposed community on the Oakville tract for the estimated development rights of the land. If the use of the city of Charleston's allocation of greenbelt funds is given final approval by Charleston County, the Aviation Authority has agreed to donate $3.9 million worth of those development rights, said Natalie Olson, Sea Islands Program Director for the Lowcountry Land Trust.

The grant funds would reimburse the Aviation Authority for about $1 million worth of those land rights. The agency will retain ownership of the property, but the conservation easement will limit all development on it in perpetuity. 

City Councilman Ross Appel told members of the Real Estate Committee that it is common for airports to create "buffer zones" along the edges of their properties.

"These airports are economic engines and there is going to be a lot of desire to develop in and around this area," Appel said.

Charleston County Council's Finance Committee will vote April 21 whether to approve the city's allocation of its share of greenbelt funds to the conservation easement. The proposal will then need a final vote from County Council.

The Oakville property is one of several tracts of land on Johns Island that are being considered for greenbelt funds. County Council's Finance Committee will also consider approving greenbelt funds to place conservation easements on two large properties, a 700-acre tract along the Stono River known as Ravenswood and a 35-acre tract that once included the Sea Islands Farmers Cooperative. The co-op was founded by Black farmers in the 1970s.

Reach Emma Whalen at 843-708-5837. Follow her on Twitter @_emma_whalen.