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News that Graves family members and Beaufort County again are talking about protecting acreage along the troubled Okatie River is encouraging.
But a separate rezoning request still raises concerns about development's potential impact on the river's health. The county has spent nearly $25 million since 2001 on land and development rights in the Okatie watershed.
To state the obvious, the county should do nothing to imperil the river or its substantial investment in restoring -- or at least stabilizing -- its water quality.
The Okatie has been closed to shellfish harvesting since 1995. State and federal officials have studied the levels of pollutants going in the river to determine the maximum amounts it can handle and stay healthy. Results show that pollutants need to be reduced up to 50 percent in the upper reaches of the Okatie watershed.
Current zoning on the Graves property, which totals about 142 acres, allows as many as 57 houses and as much as 5,000 square feet of commercial space. Family members had proposed a rezoning that would have allowed 400 houses and 1.4 million square feet of commercial space. They also wanted to sell 10 riverfront acres to the county and protect another 18 acres.
The county and the property's owners couldn't come to terms on a sales price. Graves family members offered to sell the 18 acres and protect from development another 10 acres for the price of $10.5 million. The county's appraisal for all 142 acres came in at $13.5 million. The county said no. The rezoning request had been turned down earlier.
This time around, the family is proposing a cap of 700,000 square feet of commercial space and limiting new buildings to 75,000 square feet to allay concerns about "big box" stores. Residential development of at least 124 units and perhaps more also is proposed.
The county Planning Commission's southern Beaufort County subcommittee has sent the proposal on to the full commission. County staff hasn't weighed in yet because a traffic study hasn't been submitted.
This latest proposal shouldn't be looked at as cutting in half the property's commercial development. It should be looked at as increasing 140-fold the commercial square footage allowed now on the property.
We urge caution in approving such a drastic change in land use in this area. Look again at the state and federal study on the pollutant loads the river can handle. How do we reduce pollutants up to 50 percent in the upper reaches of the watershed, where this property is located, and approve this much development?
It doesn't matter that the property owners say they have no immediate plans for development. Once it is rezoned, the potential for doing so is there. We've invested too much to take a big step backward in protecting the Okatie River.