Preserve Fairlawn forever

In one stroke, Charleston County Council could work out what conservationists, the town of Awendaw, developers and multiple landowners have been negotiating for years and years — and secure 6,000 verdant acres for the residents of Charleston County and beyond.

Charleston County’s Greenbelt Bank Board has unanimously approved a plan to purchase acreage and conservation easements to protect most of Fairlawn, a historically and ecologically significant tract of land near Awendaw, for the public.

The proposal would require that County Council approve spending most of what is left in the Greenbelt fund — $11.485 million — to seal the deal that is rightly being hailed to as a legacy acquisition. It is the kind of opportunity that rarely presents itself, and it deserves council’s enthusiastic support.

Sarah Hartman, director of land protection for the South Carolina chapter of The Nature Conservancy, who helped put the proposal together, said two families have owned the property for a couple of decades, managing it for timber and wildlife and leaving it in pristine condition.

With Council’s approval, 6,000 acres will be purchased, held by The Nature Conservancy and then given to the Department of Agriculture to become part of the Francis Marion National Forest. As such, it will be accessible to the public for hiking, biking and canoeing.

Fairlawn is one of the largest private inholdings in the forest, and thus it raises concerns about the threat of suburban sprawl.

Under the agreement, most of the land would be purchased outright, while conservation easements on the remainder would allow for minimal development by the owners.

There is one hitch, but it shouldn’t foul the deal: Previous owners of Fairlawn kept hunting and fishing rights on the property, which will expire when the last of those assignees dies. The National Forest has agreed that acquiring this important tract of land is well worth the temporary inconvenience of honoring those seasonal hunting rights.

Well it is. It backs up to Ion Swamp, one of the most valuable areas for migratory songbirds on the East Coast, also including a variety of woodpeckers and fresh water birds like ibis and woodstorks. The last known sighting of Bachman’s Warbler was at Fairlawn.

On the southern edge of the property, mostly on Guerins Bridge Road, about 500 acres will be rezoned from rural use to allow one unit per three acres, giving the property owners an opportunity to sell or develop it.

And the fate of the 359-acre Nebo Tract will finally be decided. Awendaw annexed the tract several years ago, but the Coastal Conservation League challenged the annexation in court. CCL has agreed to drop the suit if council approves this greenbelt proposal.

That would allow Awendaw to complete its annexation and zone the property, along U.S. 17, for development if it chooses, with the expectation of bringing additional jobs and services to the rural area.

Otherwise Fairlawn will be preserved as green space in perpetuity . Charleston County voters overwhelmingly opted to pay an additional tax to fund the Greenbelt program, the goal being to circle the area with a band of undeveloped land as protection for the area’s wildlife and beauty. It has been a key part of a national conservation success story.

This County Council, if it approves the deal at its Aug. 16 meeting, can earn the distinction of bringing a huge part of that goal to fruition — and ensuring that this generation and generations to come will have public access to some of the country’s most treasured land assets.