Directly across Hwy. 170 from Sun City are about 60 acres that were purchased with funds from the Rural and Critical Lands program. That fund has been financed by a series of levies that the voters in Beaufort County approved over many years to preserve the character of the Lowcountry.
The County Council is now considering a proposal to build a branch library on one part of that property and ballfields on another.
The presentation of the proposal at the County Council meeting of Nov. 14 is available at the following link: beaufortcountysc.gov/the-county-channel/#vod. Select the Nov. 14, 2022, meeting, click on video, and then skip to item 21 near the end of the agenda.
The proposal is presented as a land swap, exchanging development on most of these 60 acres for a permanent easement on Camp St. Mary, which the County already owns (google Camp St. Mary). A riverfront dock is open for your visit there.
The County bought this camp from the Catholic Diocese many years ago as a future site for a park. Local opposition stopped the development of an active park with ball fields and the like, and so the camp has sat largely unused for 20 years.
County government discussions about the future of the camp in 2020 still focused on the park idea. At the more recent Nov. 14 meeting, one council member asserted that the County would never approve development of Camp St. Mary.
But it could happen. This current proposal highlights a worrisome feature of the Rural and Critical Lands Fund: With a majority vote, County Council can order whatever use of that land it deems appropriate.
In the past, the County has allowed part of a Rural and Critical Lands tract to be used for an animal shelter. In that case, to compensate for the loss, the County substituted conservation protection on a parcel that had been bought to house a recycling center. It too had been stopped by opposition from neighbors.
Under the current proposal, the County is proposing to set aside from development land that has never been considered for anything but a park.
Supporters of the proposal say it saves the county the cost of land for a library and ball fields. Critics say that rural and critical lands money should not be buying land to house a library and ballfields; that outcome is not what voters expected when they passed those levies.
Aside from purely local considerations, the woodlands on those 60 acres provide habitat for wildlife and fight climate change. Globally, deforestation is rampant, and wildlife populations of all kinds are plummeting, largely due to loss of habitat.
It would be hypocritical to censure Brazil or Madagascar for clearing away the rainforest if Beaufort County cannot preserve 60 acres that were specifically purchased with money voted to protect the environment.
Libraries and ballfields are great, but not on land that was bought with tax money levied specifically to rein in development.
Raymond Dominick is a member of Lowcountry Environmental Action, a registered community group based in Sun City and open to members from outside the gates.