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

They pulled down all the houses where the children used to crowd,

And built expensive blocks of flats where children weren’t allowed;

And if father got a job, there was

nowhere he could dwell,

And everybody wondered why the population fell.

— Sir William Allen Herbert, in the

British House of Commons,

November 1938

Last Tuesday, Charleston County Council voted 5-4 to divert some $40 million of greenbelt money from rural to urban use. The greenbelt program, funded by a half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2004 (and extended in 2016), was created to counter the impact of urban sprawl, either by outright purchase of undeveloped suburban land or by buying easements limiting the use (like housing) that can be made of it.

In actuality, much of the money collected appears to have been spent on a variety of “traffic improvements,” as reported by Post and Courier reporter Abigail Darlington in last Wednesday’s paper. If that in fact is where it has gone, there seems to be blessed little to show for it — particularly if you’re a James Islander trying to navigate Folly Road in rush hour, or a Johns Islander trying to get off the island at almost any time of day. Heaven help us when the next hurricane shuts everything down.

Prior to council’s vote, 70 percent of greenbelt money was earmarked for rural use, and 30 percent for urban. Now the estimated $210 million the half-cent sales tax will bring in over the next 40 years (yes, half-cent taxes do rake in the dough) will be divided equally between city and suburb. It’s said that some of the urban money will go to build and maintain city parks and other green spaces.

These are things that city dwellers will applaud, but not, I wager, a majority of county residents who thought their half-penny taxes would be spent for a “greenbelt,” magically solving many of the problems population growth inevitably brings with it.

It’s estimated that within a decade or so, Charleston and its environs will be home to a million or more people. Think of it — a million! It seems only yesterday when a quarter million was an impossible dream — or, for some, a sweaty nightmare. Finding housing for newcomers is not going to be easy, nor is paying for the infrastructure needed to support it.

Peninsular Charleston is faced with special problems. There is nowhere near as much undeveloped land to build the housing it desperately needs now. And then there are our zoning laws, among the most exacting in the country. Contrary to what you now might see in the hospital district, where multi-story structures are sprouting up like weeds, there is not much, if any, land left where affordable, high-rise housing can be built, even if someone could be found who wanted to build it.

Like it or not, most of the county’s future population growth will be centered in the bedroom communities of James and Johns islands. It is futile, and has been for a long time, to try to preserve the islands’ “rural character,” whatever that means today. That train left the station years ago, probably when the city of North Charleston was incorporated, thus shutting off Charleston’s natural growth in that direction.

What can be done now? About the peninsula, not much. On the islands (and I’ll throw in Daniel Island here) the possibility still exists to prepare for what is assuredly coming. Number one priority should be to improve ingress and egress to areas where growth is certain to occur. That is exclusively government’s job.

And yes, that means completing I-526. With apologies to some of my friends in the Coastal Conservation League, this should have been done years ago, when it would have cost far less than it will today, or tomorrow, or the day after.

The people are coming. Many are already here. They cannot be reduced to pitching tents on Marion Square and using porta-potties. The tourists would not be amused.

And that is something, I hope, we all can agree upon.

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.