With the summer heat fading into memory and most of the visitors gone, it might be time to take a hike through some of the quietest acreage in Beaufort County.
A dozen passive parks in the county provide an array of opportunities to enjoy historic sites and the natural environment, and four more parks are in various stages of preparation.
The Okatie River Park off Graves Road on U.S. 278, Bailey Memorial Park in the Alljoy neighborhood of Bluffton, and the New Riverside Regional Preserve at the end of New Riverside Road fall under the jurisdiction of the Beaufort County Planning Department.
The New Riverside Park, near the intersection of Highway 46 and S.C. 170, falls under the purview of the town of Bluffton.
All four parks are in various stages of completing architectural and engineering plans, permitting and funding.
The Beaufort County Community Development Code states that passive parks are determined as those locations that require little or no extra effort to enjoy what resources are readily available for activities such as fishing, hiking, bicycling and nature studies.
There won’t be ballfields, basketball courts or outdoor arenas built on these properties. but they will contain to some degree the same amenities that most of the other dozen passive parks in Beaufort County.
One of the newest is the Okatie River Park, for which stakeholders – those with an interest in the future of the property – were invited to participate in an open house in August. County Passive Parks Manager Stefanie Nagid said the property is currently not accessible to the public.
“I am currently in the Phase II planning phase. This entails architectural and engineering plans and construction specifications. Upon county approval and appropriate permitting, we can contract for the construction,” said Nagid. “At this time I do not have a date as to when construction will begin or when the park will be open to the public.”
Okatie River Park runs along the headwaters of the Okatie River “under a grand live oak tree canopy,” the county website notes. The county purchased the property in 2013 under the under the Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program to protect the Okatie River from development along its banks as well as allowing public access for passive recreation.
“There are a lot of pieces that have to come together before beginning construction, and that involves infrastructure with our adjacent neighbors, the Pepperhall Plantation, who are building the access road,” she said. “We’re both still working through our planning and permitting procedures at the moment.”
A 50-acre tract in the heart of the Alljoy community in Bluffton contains upland and wetland forest habitats. Bailey Memorial Park will improve stormwater retention while at the same time be available to the public.
“The Bailey Memorial Park open house was well received by the Alljoy and surrounding communities. Overall, the public was supportive of the park plan and made a few minor suggestions, which we incorporated into the plan,” Nagid said. “It will be on the passive parks website once it passes through the County Natural Resources Committee.”
Nagid expected to present the final plan to the committee on Oct. 4.
The 37-acre New Riverside Park is at the intersection of SC 46 and New Riverside Road (SC 170) at the traffic circle. Construction is set to begin in 2022 and be completed within the year, according to town spokesperson Debbie Szpanka.
“The first phase will be perimeter trails, as requested by those citizens who attended the open house in 2019,” Szpanka said. “There will also be a playground that fits in with the natural surroundings, as well as parking and restrooms. Park infrastructure will include sewer, water and storm drainage, and fencing around the property.”
The 2,700-square-foot barn will be renovated and made available for a variety of events, and the open grounds have a potential for evening programs, as well as car shows, craft shows and markets.
Finally, the 700-acre New Riverside Regional Preserve property sits along the New River and currently has a conceptual plan approved by the Town of Bluffton.
“There is $900,000 remaining from the original donation funding to be used towards future planning and construction. At this time, I am trying to find additional funding for the construction of the access road before I can move forward with further planning or construction of the preserve itself,” said Nagid.
The preserve along the river is a huge wetland island mix of parcels. There will not be any work done on the interior of the preserve until the access road is built.
The four new parks are part of the county’s investment in the Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program which began in 1999 to protect rural and critical land, preserving the unique environment, history, culture and economy of Beaufort County.
There are a videos, maps and more information at beaufortcountysc.gov/planning/passive-parks, including one for the opening of Fort Frederick Heritage Preserve and the other for Widgeon Point Preserve.
“Sept. 25 was National Public Lands Day. With the fall weather coming up, there’s a lot of opportunity for people to come out to enjoy our natural and cultural resources for free from dawn to dusk every day,” Nagid said. “The website highlights what the county owns, but municipalities have their own park sites, we have two natural wildlife refuges in the area, and there are national parks. There is opportunity to get out and enjoy nature.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.