This aerial photograph, overlaid with the preliminary concept plan for the Graves property, Pepper Hall Plantation, shows the proximity of the property to the Okatie River. COURTESY BEAUFORT COUNTY

A development agreement more than 10 years in the making, and on its third presentation in three months, squeaked through the Beaufort County Council with a vote of 5-4, following more than two hours of intense public comment.

The agreement involves property belonging to Robert L. Graves, the scion of the Graves family that has lived in South Carolina since before the American Revolution, and land belonging to the county.

In notices leading up to the Dec. 10 council meeting, the joint agreement between the county and Graves was labeled as a public-private partnership.

The 84 acres are on U.S. 278 east of the S.C. 170 overpass crossing the Okatie River.

They were once zoned for rural use, and in 2016 rezoned as neighborhood mixed use (C-3) and residential-commercial mixed (C-5) use. The development may include up to 350,000 square feet of commercial space as well as 300 dwellings in the C-3 zone and 450 in the higher-density C-5.

The approval for rezoning was approved after applications from the family since 2012 to allow them to develop the property. The requests had been denied, citing – among other concerns – impact on traffic, potential for unsightly box stores, and further degradation of the Okatie.

Adjacent to these 84 acres – and now serving as a buffer between that property and the river – is an 18-acre strip of land that the county purchased from Graves in 2013 for $4 million with funds from the Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program.

The land is designated to be part of the county’s passive park system for residents to enjoy a natural setting with minimal man-made improvements.

It is now part of the packaged agreement that enables Graves to develop his property by having sufficient green space to balance the proposed build-out.

The majority of the speakers – if not completely against the agreement – urged the council to reconsider the potential costs, obligations and environmental impact it will have on the health of the nearby Okatie River.

John Riolo, who considers himself a nature lover and naturalist, moved to Bluffton several years ago. He said the current trend of developing is reminiscent of what happened to where he lived in New England.

“We lived on the water, right on the ocean and we were able to fish and dig for shellfish in our backyard,” Riolo said. During a period of 28 years, he and his wife watched the pollution increase to the point they were no longer able to fish or dig for clams.

“We come to beautiful places and the more people come, the more we incrementally eat away at the beautiful places,” he said. “You could blame development, progress, lack of concern for the future. We need to take some steps to slow down so that pockets of nature can still exist.”

Scott Crosby, a Graves family member who lives on the property, spoke during public comment at the council meeting. He does not approve of the agreement because of what he called “ridiculous” density and what may happen to the property which now teems with wildlife.

“In 2010, a study done by the department of health resulted in the closing of the shellfish beds on the Okatie. One of the collection sites – 18-08 – is located on the edge of my uncle’s property and it has the highest level of bacteria in the river,” Crosby said. “They have done nothing but go up in the last eight years and this development will do nothing but increase those levels and endanger the river more.”

Those collection sites are spread throughout 19 coastal areas and are managed by the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Shellfish Management Area 18, where 18-08 is located, covers 12,118 acres of oyster beds and 17 monitoring stations, three of which are closed to harvesting shellfish due to the high levels of fecal coliform and other pollutants.

Area 18 ranges from the headwaters of the Okatie to Spring Island.

Erin Levesque, director of the Waddell Mariculture Research and Development Center, said the community needs to be thoughtful about development.

“It’s not just about the oysteries but the nursery environment. [The Okatie] is providing a nursery habitat for crustaceans and species of fish,” Levesque said. “This is a nursery habitat for red drum and sea trout and our most recreationally sought after species of fish, as well as supporting food resources for mammal communities such as bottlenose dolphins and diamondback terrapins.”

There is value in learning how to sustain the economic viability of our natural resources while preserving them, she added.

“Why are people moving here in the first place? Is it not the natural beauty and the quality of life?” said Levesque. “There’s intrinsic value in preserving our natural resources. In doing so you have to be careful about how much development you are going to allow.”

Longtime Bluffton resident Collins Doughtie, known for his advocacy of the area’s natural beauty and resources, was one of the many people who spoke at the council meeting. Two days later, he continued to question the decision to approve the development.

“I don’t know why Beaufort County doesn’t realize that there are certain area that are critical environmental areas and this is one right at the headwaters of the estuary,” Doughtie said. “I was disappointed in the whole thing. For the council sitting there and not hearing what the people were saying. It’s ruining this area. For the first time, riding home from the meeting, I thought maybe it’s time for me to move away from here. And that makes me sad.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.