Public soon will own natural treasures

The northern tip of Morris Island would become public land at less cost to taxpayers under an agreement reached with Ginn Resorts that also could help preserve Long Island, a 2.5-mile network of marsh islands near Folly Beach.

The pending deals also would give the city of Charleston the power to decide what, if any, docks, trails or facilities should be built there.

Developer Bobby Ginn, who bought the privately owned portion of Morris Island for $6.8 million in 2006, originally had wanted restrooms and two docks built there, but the public strongly objected to that idea during recent planning sessions.

"I've always felt like Morris Island should be used as a monument first and a tribute to what happened there," Ginn said Friday, "but at the same time, I think it should be accessible, not just to people with boats but church groups and other groups that come out. ... That's been pretty much my position all along."

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said Ginn has agreed to sell the private portion of Morris Island, Cummings Point, to the city for only $3 million — less than the $4.5 million price agreed upon two years ago. The sale is expected to close by month's end. "This outcome would not have been possible without Ginn Resorts' generosity and commitment to bettering the community," Riley said.

Under the restructured deal, the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission could keep the $1.5 million difference, and it then could apply that money toward a separate deal to buy Long Island, which, like Cummings Point, has Civil War history, no development and provides important bird and wildlife habitat. Tom O'Rourke, executive director of the commission, said PRC commissioners will hear about the deal Monday.

Meanwhile, Cummings Point would be paid for with $1 million from the State Ports Authority, $1.5 million from the state Conservation Bank, $179,000 each from the cities of Charleston and Folly Beach, and $142,000 raised by The Trust for Public Land, according to city officials. The city of Charleston would hold the title.

The $179,000 each from the two municipalities could come from Charleston County greenbelt funds, financed by the half-cent sales tax, Riley said.

Completion of the Morris Island deal had earlier been delayed by both the need to raise funds for the purchase, and disagreement between Ginn and others about what should be built there.

"I'm not going to try to dictate what happens out there, but I do have opinions about it," Ginn said. "If a boat didn't go to Fort Sumter, then you wouldn't know it was out there. I feel the same way about this one, but that's just my opinion."

The Ginn Co.'s offer to sell the land, and the Conservation Bank's $1.5 million grant toward the purchase, were both set to expire at the end of 2007, but were extended until June 30.

Meanwhile, the owner of Long Island, K&A Acquisitions Group, has agreed to sell Long Island to The Trust for Public Land for about $10.6 million, but that figure could change following an appraisal now being done, said Slade Gleaton, South Carolina director for the Trust for Public Land.

K&A purchased Long Island in 2005 for $7.5 million and hoped to build 190 homes there. The number of homes proposed was scaled back to 105, then 53, which Folly Beach planners rejected. It also tried to get a permit to build a bridge to link the island with the mainland but withdrew the permit application last fall.

Long Island is a series of islands with 140 acres of high land stretching over 2.5 miles among James, Peas, Oak, Morris and Folly islands. The property is speckled with wetlands and is the site of an earthen fortification that Union troops built during the Civil War.

The island also was one of 25 marsh islands studied by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources as the state weighed new rules for building bridges to those islands.

In 2006, Billy McCord, a DNR wildlife biologist, helped oversee the study and visited Long Island about a dozen times. "Long Island had the highest diversity of birds of any island I surveyed," he said. "I would actually rank that island number one of all the islands surveyed because of its value to wildlife."

Even if the PRC agrees to spend $1.5 million on Long Island, that still would leave the Trust for Public Land with the job of raising more money from federal, state, local and private sources, Gleaton said.

"We're always optimistic, but as with any of these transactions, there's always a lot of work to do. They're very complex. The one thing that Long Island has going for it is that it's an extremely important resource," he said.

Both Gleaton and O'Rourke said planning for the future of Long Island would begin only after the sale went through. "It's not only unclear what role we'll have on Long Island, but it's also unclear what role we'll have in Cummings Point," O'Rourke said.

Morris Island was involved in the initial bombardment of Fort Sumter and was the site of a major 1863 battle between Confederate troops and the Union's all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The battle was depicted in the climactic scene of the movie "Glory."