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Beaufort County is to be applauded for continuing its strategic land purchases near the headwaters of the Okatie River.
The recent vote to purchase 45 acres for $1.8 million prevents commercial construction in an area that shouldn't be developed if there is any hope of restoring the river to good health or at the very least preventing more damage.
Development plans for the two parcels in question, which lie in the town of Bluffton, included a hotel; an office building; a fast food restaurant, convenience store and gas station; two restaurants; a retail building; and more than 160 residential units. All of this within a stone's throw of the tidal river's headwaters.
Thirty-five acres of the land to be purchased is wetlands, testifying to the environmental sensitivity of the area. The county has options to purchase the remaining 20 acres in two phases before the year ends for $2.9 million.
Given the millions of dollars already spent in the area, as well as the public resources expended in trying to come up with a way to restore the river's water quality, this additional investment only makes sense. The development contemplated for the property would very likely negate those previous efforts.
County Council Chairman Weston Newton summed it up well: "Protecting our waterways is tantamount to protecting our natural resources and our way of life, quite honestly, in this part of South Carolina."
It's unfortunate that we haven't had a coordinated approach to targeting where development should and shouldn't occur in this area. That requires a level of cooperation between Bluffton and Beaufort County that has been lacking.
In 2009, when moving ahead on commercial development in this area, Bluffton officials said they were confident the town's stormwater management requirements would prevent further damage to the Okatie, which has been closed to shellfish harvesting since 1995. The town also approved a 178,632-square-foot shopping center on an adjacent tract.
Andrea Malloy of the Coastal Conservation League said then that she worried developers wouldn't be able to fulfill their promise not to harm water quality in the Okatie River or that man-made systems would fail.
"Some people believe you can engineer a solution," Malloy said. "I don't think they can perfectly replicate what's there right now."
Some areas shouldn't be risked to development, even with the best of intentions or science. And the sooner we recognize that and act on it, the better. Since 1998, we've been promised that new development would not harm local waterways, and officials have failed us in that promise.
The best hope now is to take out of play strategic properties in sensitive areas.
The announcement this month of the purchase also is a reminder that voters this fall will be asked to approve a new round of borrowing for the county's land preservation program. The county would like to borrow $25 million. The stated goals are to alleviate traffic congestion in high growth areas and to protect water quality, natural lands, wildlife areas, farmland, parkland, recreational areas, coastal areas, rivers and wetlands.
Supporting the county's land preservation efforts is an investment in our natural resources and our way of life, still the Lowcountry's biggest selling point.