Gippy Plantation House (copy)

The privately owned Gippy Plantation house is on a nearby separate tract from the one DR Horton wants to develop near Moncks Corner. Provided/Brandon Coffey

When it comes to preserving historic properties like Gippy Plantation, fast-growing Berkeley County needs a new bag of tools to better manage development. Zoning laws alone will be insufficient, and S.C. Conservation Bank funds will only go so far as the demand for new housing puts rural property owners under increased pressure to sell to the highest bidder.

Texas-based D.R. Horton, which bills itself as the nation’s biggest home builder, has just floated a plan to construct about 1,200 homes on the former rice and cotton fields that made up Gippy Plantation, situated on the banks of the Cooper River off old Highway 52 just south of Moncks Corner. And though the initial response from area residents was overwhelmingly negative, there may be little the county or the town of Moncks Corner — it is being asked to annex the property to allow for greater density — can do to stop the development.

“As Berkeley County expands, this is why the county needs to be thinking about protecting natural and cultural resources,” said Jason Crowley of the Coastal Conservation League. “It’s the heart of rice country for the Cooper River district.”

A contract for the purchase of about 800 acres has been signed, but the deal has yet to close. The development would go up on about 400 acres next to about 30 homes, including the 1850s plantation house, that each sit on about 5 acres. A proposal could go before the Moncks Corner Planning Commission as soon as Nov. 26.

Moncks Corner officials, who should be focusing on internal growth, ought to be wary of the proposed annexation and the infrastructure burdens that come with suburban sprawl. In July, the town annexed about 450 acres along Highway 52 several miles south of the Gippy property near Cypress Garden Road and a cluster of other housing developments. That property is likely to be developed with homes and businesses in the near term.

Regardless of whether Moncks Corner annexes the Gippy property, Berkeley County officials should be able to read the writing on the wall. Without a publicly funded conservation mechanism, such as its own conservation bank, Berkeley County will be hard-pressed to protect its historical properties. That goes for rapidly growing Dorchester County as well.

There are plenty of good models in the Lowcountry. Beaufort County’s Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program, funded by voter-approved bond referendums, has helped protect about 24,000 acres. Charleston County’s Greenbelt Program, funded by a portion of the county’s half-cent sales tax, has enabled the preservation of nearly a third of the county through purchases and conservation easements.

Faced with a number of growth-related challenges, Berkeley County residents should embrace such an initiative. Even if it came in the form of a slight tax increase, the benefits would outweigh the costs in the long run by helping guide development away from sensitive historic properties. And the timing is right with a new county supervisor set to take charge in January.

Old Highway 52, a two-lane scenic corridor, would be insufficient to handle the added traffic of another mega-development, and increased runoff could impact Cooper River water quality. About 330 acres of Gippy property is already under a conservation easement as part of an Environmental Protection Agency settlement with a former landowner accused of illegally filling marshland.

Moncks Corner officials should listen to current residents and reject the annexation, and Berkeley County should consider a growth-funded conservation program to protect historic and environmentally sensitive properties.