Greenbelt is a natural asset

The protection of Kinlaw Tract on Edisto Island was supported by public funding in cooperation with the Charleston County Greenbelt Bank. (File)

Ten years ago, Charleston County voters agreed to add a half cent to the local sales tax so that valuable green space could be protected in perpetuity from development. Approval of that referendum was a public acknowledgement that residential and resort developments were gobbling up farm land and forests at an alarming rate.

The voters’ decision to do something about it has been rewarded with thousands of acres of protected green space located around the perimeter of the metropolitan area. In addition, property has been purchased for new parks — urban and rural — for the public’s enjoyment across Charleston County.

The greenbelt initiative has been led from its inception by Louise Maybank, who, until last month, chaired the Greenbelt Advisory Board. Last week Charleston County Council paid tribute to her for her vital contribution to the program. Her selection to lead the board was truly an inspired one.

Mrs. Maybank came to the program with great credentials — for example, she was involved in the successful grassroots effort to create a special zoning district to preserve Wadmalaw Island, one of the jewels of rural Charleston County. As chairman of the Greenbelt Advisory Board, she kept the program on track, in part, by her support of conservation easements as the most cost-effective way to achieve the desired results within the program’s limited budget.

Property was chosen with the guidance of the volunteer board that sought to protect strategic locations to forestall urban sprawl. All land transactions were voluntary, and virtually all were aided by landowners who generally were willing to accept far less than the appraised value.

Buying conservation easements largely achieved the goals of the greenbelt program — preserving the landscape, natural habitat and traditional rural land uses, while containing development — and at a fraction of the expense of buying it outright. The easements were purchased from landowners who shared the greenbelt’s preservation ethic, and were committed to ensuring that the land could never be used for development. Needless to say, those property owners forfeited what could have been big paydays as development interests look farther afield for new building sites. The average cost of a conservation easement was about $1,600 an acre, compared to $14,700 per acre for fee simple purchases made under the greenbelt program. Those purchases included parks benefitting small towns that were not eligible for the portion of the greenbelt fund set aside for larger municipalities.

Those park purchases were in addition to the nearly 5,000 acres acquired by the Charleston Park and Recreation Commission, which doubled its own park acreage with its portion of the sales tax funds provided by the 2004 referendum.

And by any measure, the preservation of 21,000 acres by the Charleston greenbelt initiative can be counted as a major conservation achievement, and should encourage support of similar efforts, public and private. Mrs. Maybank and her colleagues on the citizen panels that have guided the greenbelt effort deserve the gratitude of the community for plowing new ground in conservation and local growth management.

The rural greenbelt fund is all but exhausted — there is a single purchase pending. But the results should encourage another referendum to reinvigorate the greenbelt fund, as the opportunity presents itself. For as the economy has rebounded, so has development.

Continued vigilance in land use management is necessary to ensure that the remaining rural character of Charleston County isn’t diminished or lost. The greenbelt program should continue to be an essential part of that effort.