BEAUFORT COUNTY, S.C. (WSAV) — Voters in the Lowcountry are not just deciding which candidates they want to lead them, they must also choose if they will pay more when buying things in Beaufort County.
It was the talk on early voting in Beaufort on Monday, mostly because several people who were in line to cast a vote didn’t know anything about the Greenspace tax that was on the ballot.
The tax proposal in front of Beaufort County voters Beaufort County Council is 1% for two years, allowing the County to collect up to $100 million to purchase land, conservation easements, and buy down density to slow and prevent development. The money may also be used to pay off debt from past land purchases.
“Bluffton with 110% growth in last 10 years. You can pretty much drive to any street corner and see it being developed,” explains Chris Ophardt, Beaufort County PIO. “North of the Broad River we have been able to do more easements up there to protect the cone around the airbase for noise and crashes.”
That’s just part of the reason Beaufort County Council put a 1% or one penny sales tax increase on the ballot for voters.
That $100 million can be spent on buying properties and keeping them from developers.
“Once developed you cannot reclaim the land or you miss a chance to protect resources. Protect water quality, restoration later on after its damage is a lot more expensive than paying today. Up front,” said Kate Schafer of the environmental group Open Land Trust.
Schafer said from the Port Royal Sound in Beaufort County to the headwaters in Jasper and Hampton counties, there are nationally significant resources in our area that need protecting.
“From salt marsh to wetlands to upland forest and longleaf pine we have some phenomenal landscapes that don’t exist intact anywhere else on the East Coast,” says Schafer.
That’s in addition to the property connected to 160 plus farms in the county which produce in the range of $20 million in food revenue a year.
Schafer calls this proposal significant to the future, and good for everyone in the County.
“You can protect your rural areas, your wetlands, your farmlands, your vulnerable places adjacent to the river bodies,” says Schafer. “And you can develop in your cities and towns. You can create thriving places to live and thriving places for wildlife and that’s the win-win.”
The County made its case for the bill just after the Council sent it to the polls.
South Carolina is the tenth-fastest-growing State in the nation, and Beaufort County is the eighth-fastest-growing county in the State and has continued to experience a high rate of growth during the last decade.
The Town of Bluffton in 2001 consisted of one square mile. Now the town’s footprint exceeds 54 square miles, and in the past decade, its population increased by 156%.
The population of the City of Hardeeville in southern Beaufort and Jasper counties has increased 212% in the past decade.
A 2018 joint study of Lady’s Island by the city of Beaufort and Beaufort County concluded new measures were needed to manage growth on the island, with the anticipated amount of growth exceeding the capacity of the island’s infrastructure.
This rapid growth puts environmentally unsustainable pressures on our lands and waters in that the development and the accompanying infrastructure destroy natural wetlands, marshes, headwaters, and other waterways, thereby hampering the functioning of these systems and eliminating valuable and effective natural storm protection and flood abatement, and fish and wildlife habitat.
Opponents of the proposal are online saying it’s a big price to pay in a potentially difficult economic time.
They are concerned that many of these areas will get developed anyway down the road.
They don’t trust the county council with these decisions.
County Public Information Officer, Chris Ophardt said that shouldn’t come into play when you vote. That’s because the county council will not have the final decision alone.
“There will be a citizens committee set up,” says Ophardt. “It will be made up of Council members, civilian volunteers, and state lawmakers that will look through the various properties that are for sale and also development areas that have also submitted applications and decide on how to spend that $400 million over the next four to five years.”
As for the question of whether the property would be bought, sold, and developed in a few years. That would take a vote of two-thirds of the county council to happen. Ophardt says this proposal is designed to protect the watershed, wetlands, and natural beauty, not try and make money for the County later on.
If the proposed tax doesn’t pass? Ophardt says it won’t mean an end to our green spaces but could affect the process.
“It just elongates the timeline,” said Ophardt. “And the developers seem to move a lot faster than we can save money. This one percent tax over two years will help us try to match and get out ahead of some of the development.”