Oyster Factory Park, located at the end of Wharf Street in Bluffton, overlooks the May River. It has long been the scene of numerous community gatherings, such as this Bluffton State of Mind reunion party in February this year. LYNNE COPE HUMMELL

The rapid growth and development taking over the Lowcountry has the state’s elected officials concerned to the point that a new law authorizing a “green space” tax was signed May 16 by Gov. Henry McMaster.

The County Green Space Sales Tax Act, S. 152, was written and sponsored by Sen. Tom Davis, and passed through the Senate 41-3, and through the House 67-28.

In a letter to the Beaufort County Council requesting time to discuss the matter with council members at the next meeting, Davis wrote that Beaufort County’s need to purchase and preserve land was “nothing short of existential.”

“If current development trends continue, it is estimated – conservatively, in my opinion – that the amount of developed land here will increase by more than 150% over the next two decades. Beaufort County voters have approved in the past, by overwhelming margins, the authorization of borrowings by the county for purposes of funding its Rural and Critical Lands Program,” Davis wrote. “The recent enactment of S. 152 into law, however, provides the county with a much more powerful financial tool to effect preservation procurements at a much greater scale, which I believe is necessary to truly make a difference.”   

The proposed sales tax of up to 1% will be used to raise money to pay the interest and principle on bonds that would then be used to pay for fee simple titles, conservation easements, development rights, the rights of first refusal on potential properties, options to buy, leases with options to purchase, and any other relevant interests in real property or land.

“The county’s fragile ecosystem simply cannot sustain that level of development. It is no exaggeration to say we are witnessing in real time the destruction of our natural wetlands, marshes, headwaters, and other waterways, and the elimination of valuable and effective natural storm protection and flood abatement, and fish and wildlife habitat,” Davis wrote.

The new law broadly lists the natural resources throughout the state. In describing the Lowcountry, the document states that the coastal geography consists of “187 miles of oceanfront shoreline and 2,876 miles of tidal shorelines, and includes 500,000 acres of salt marshes that represent 20% of all the salt marshes on the United States’ Atlantic coast, all of which underpin extensive recreational and commercial fisheries, thriving coastal tourism, important maritime industries, and critical natural defenses for people against storms.”

The legislation also lists numerous reasons why limiting development and preserving land in the Lowcountry will slow the destruction of natural wetlands, marshes, headwaters, and other waterways.

One of the critical factors in preserving natural lands is the desire to continue use of the shellfish beds. According to a 2019 technical report from the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, since 2009 the fecal coliform levels in the some of the oyster beds in the May River’s headwaters have been above the approved levels as mandated by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The report states that river-wide levels for fecal coliform has increased 3,150% since 1999. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since Bluffton’s population increased 2,696% between 1990 and 2017.

Much of rise in bacteria and deterioration of water quality comes from the increase in impervious surfaces – roads, houses, hardscapes – which allow a rapid runoff of stormwater carrying fertilizer, chemicals, road oils and other contaminants directly into the nearest waterways or conduits rather than being filtered by seeping into the ground.

Rising sea levels and coastal flooding could also have a negative impact on both national defense and the state’s economy with the environmental threat to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, according to the legislation. The military base employs 6,100 people and has an annual economic impact of $739.8 million.

The county’s Rural and Critical Land Preservation program has, since 2000, preserved more than 25,000 acres for conservation, parks, buffers, scenic vistas and other natural resources as well as cultural and historic sites.

The Oyster Factory Park, Fort Fremont and the Penn Center Farm are among the properties that have benefitted from the program.

The opening paragraph of S.152 highlights why Davis and many of his colleagues in Columbia believe this legislation is important: South Carolina is blessed with a broad array of natural resources, from the Blue Ridge Escarpment in the Upstate, to the sandhills of the Midlands, to the farmland and woodlands of the Pee Dee, and to the iconic shoreline and marshes of the coastal plain.

Discussion about a Green Space referendum was not on the May 23 council agenda.

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