SUMMERVILLE-- The entire southern border of Dorchester County is the black willow and sandbar-lined Edisto River, the longest free-flowing blackwater river in the world. It could be one of the premier outdoor destinations in the Lowcountry.

But the only parks along it are private or state-owned, just one of the recreation gaps in a county of nearly

130,000 people without a park system. County Council is about to take an ambitious step toward fixing that -- possibly placing a recreation bond referendum in front of voters, maybe as soon as November 2010.

Dorchester County has tried for more than 20 years to set up some sort of organized parks or recreation program and failed to find the money to do it. Twice in the 1990s voters shot down the idea in referendums. A third try was sidetracked into a vote for a smaller amount of money to build senior centers.

But people keep asking. This time, council members hope they have a few more answers.

A recently completed parks and recreation master plan lays out a series of parks with amenities such as ball fields, boat launches, wetland boardwalks and BMX tracks, along with a signature regional park of 100 acres of sports fields and nature-oriented landscapes, picnic areas and fishing and boat-launching piers. It was compiled using results from surveys that asked residents what they wanted.

Meanwhile, the Trust for Public Land is finishing a feasibility study on preserving public land that is expected to be presented to council in December. Council's decision to act on it could depend on whether the study shows strong support among residents.

County officials already are seeking and winning grants to do some recreation work and are looking at funding alternatives such as impact fees. For example, the Eagle Chandler Bridge Creek Trail in Oakbrook near Summerville is being built with about $350,000 in grants and a little more than $100,000 in matching money.

"We've had such a huge amount of growth. I think people have come to realize if they want those things, there is a cost to have them," said Council Chairman Jamie Feltner. "If our constituents want it, that's what we're supposed to do."

The county has been unable to put together so much as a ball field complex comparable to Summerville's Gahagan Park, much less a park system. It's well behind the town's park efforts, despite having the Edisto River, a swamp holding the world's largest virgin cypress-tupelo stand and strong interest in sports and outdoor recreation from the Summerville suburbs to the rural upper county.

The stumbling block for the new plan, like the old efforts, is the cost. Budget estimates for the program begin at $10 million per year, before any new land is acquired. In the past, the money involved has just been too big a sell for fiscally conservative voters in a county where politicians rise and fall on the promise not to raise taxes or fees.

Only 17 of the state's 46 counties charge a recreation fee, according to the South Carolina Association for Counties Web site. Only three counties have special tax districts for recreation: Greenville, Lexington and Georgetown counties.

"It's unusual for a county not to provide for recreation and have an open-space plan to build on," said Rich Dolesh, public policy chief for the National Recreation and Parks Association, who is familiar with the Charleston area. In a growing area, the people who move in are increasingly upscale. "They want the service and they're willing to pay for it. They want safe places for their kids to play, athletic fields and community centers."

Recreation funding has long-term economic benefits, Dolesh said. Sports tournaments in a well-established program draw tourism dollars. The amenities and outdoors environment tend to draw more upscale residents and industries, improving the tax base and creating jobs. More kids playing more sports tends to reduce juvenile delinquency and crime.

"It's a unifying factor for a community, bringing together people of different backgrounds," Dolesh said. "It enhances the quality of life, but it enhances the economy too."

Reach Bo Petersen at 9 37-5744 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.