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Greenbelts Advisory Board Meeting - October 25

Preparing for the hard decisions
Warwick Jones, Editor

Somebody should have warned us. Serve on the Greenbelt Advisory Board (GAB) and you will have no friends. Hopefully an exaggeration, but patently possible. Consider the results of the public hearing on greenspace and the spectrum of desires expressed by the public. Consider also what the public did not want. Now consider the views of some of the cities of the County which look more to active parks rather than passive greenspace, a view generally contrary to that coming from the public hearings. Now consider the $221 million funding for greenbelts, a sum that is sizable for most of us but in the context of present and probably future land prices, not large, especially as its receipt will be spread over 25 years.

Competing desires of citizens and municipalities
The GAB is an oversight body, designed to give guidance to the County as to where the designated sales tax money should be directed. The Board is now coming to the end of the education and learning process and approaching the confrontation of hard options. It is becoming obvious that there is a range of competing desires, and that satisfaction of all of them is not possible. How do we weight the desires of citizens and the municipalities? No matter how, there will be many dissatisfied. And even with the best will in the world, the GAB is going to create critics, or maybe even worse.

At yesterday's meeting, Mr. Chuck Flink, principal of the consultant Greenways Inc, spoke of the results of the public hearing. He then went on to make a presentation on the Needs and Goals of the County. These in turn were discussed by the Board which concluded that a lot more discussion was needed.

"Passive greenspace" top of needs
Firstly, the result of the public hearings. There were 348 completed response forms submitted, most by folk who attended the hearings. There was proportionally higher attendance at the meetings by residents of West Ashley, Mount Pleasant and Johns Island than from other areas. This may have reflected the location of the meeting places. It is likely that the next and final public hearings will be held in different locations in an attempt to draw more people from the City of Charleston and North Charleston. "Passive greenspace" was considered by respondents to be the most important part of a greenbelt program and was followed very closely by "low country natural resources", and then, "heritage landscapes". These answers were similar to those in other surveys conducted in other counties.

"Wildlife habitat protection" top use
To the question how would you like to use this protected green space, the top answer was "wildlife habitat protection", and following closely, "walking and biking", and then back somewhat was "educational and interpretive parks". "Active recreation" was ranked last in the options.

Mr. Flink noted that there was a pattern in the responses that could be broadly defined - Rural vs, Urban. Those people living in largely rural areas looked more to the preservation of greenbelts and open land while those in urban areas looked more to parks.

Modest change to "greenbelt" definition
He also summarized the public response to the working definition of the word "greenbelts". Generally, the public seemed very happy with the definition but some suggested the addition of "wild life habitat" to what should be preserved and "health and happiness" to the objectives for the creation of greenbelts. The GAB voted to add the terms accordingly though stipulated that the definition was still "working" and could be modified in the light of further discussions.

Mr. Flink also noted that respondents did approve the addition of the "purchase and development of municipal parks". But they did not approve "boat landings, baseball fields, golf courses, playgrounds and soccer fields etc". (It is noted that the Parks and Recreation (PRC) plans to use its allocation of sales tax funds for some of these latter purposes, a plan that was endorsed by the GAB though not unanimously. The Town of Mount Pleasant has also requested that some of these items be considered for sales tax funding)

And then we jumped into deep water.

Defining targets is mixture of science and art
How can these needs be met, Mr Flink asked us? We can use public input as a guide, we can look to the present level of availability and assess what more is needed now, and in future to serve the growing population. We can establish a target acreage level of conservation. But defining the target ultimately most likely will be equal parts science and art.

As a guide Mr. Flink provided some acreage figures which he conceded may not be completely accurate but were sufficiently so for a guide. The area of Charleston County amounts to 670,000 acres. Of this total, about 161,000 acres were "greenspace" according to our definition. Local Government held 6700 acres, State and Federal Government 129,000 acres and Private interests, including conservation easements, 26,000 acres. The total 161,000 acres represented 24% of the total space.

Should we set target percentage levels for acreage?
He asked should we set a target for acreage? Should it be 20%, or as high as 40 %? He noted what might be and not be preserved at the various percentage rates. For example, a 20% target may not be sufficiently high to preserve water quality. He gave ratios that had been applied in other Counties in other States and these ranged between 20% and 40% of the total land areas. If the 30% ratio were chosen, then the County needs to acquire 40,000 acres. How were acquisitions to be allocated? Mr. Flink also noted the study made in 2002 by the PRC which called for the acquisition of 5167 acres over the years to 2015 to meet the needs of the municipalities in the County in the light of anticipated population growth

If there were a common response by the GAB, it was bewilderment. Nobody felt confident about making any decision in relation to a percentage goal though it was probably the preferred route for many members. Some us expressed concern with the assumption that all acres were the same if a goal were defined as a simple percentage of land areas. After all, an acre of development rights has a value much lower than say an acre for an active park in the middle of the Peninsula. Some of us also wanted to be able to place it all in a financial perspective. What would $221 million buy at present values of land and development rights? What could we expect from conservation groups in contributions and our ability to leverage the County's funds? How far could the $221 million be expected to go? Some opined that allocation would need to be made on a use, or purpose basis rather than defined simply as acreage.

There was much discussion and the GAB agreed to meet in 2 weeks time to again join on the issues raised in determining conservation goals. It was hoped that the consultant could again be present, and Mr. Flink said he would be. But even if he could not be, the GAB proposes to meet, to beat some sort of path into this prickly wilderness.

Warwick Jones is a member of GAB

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