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Greenbelt Advisory Board May 2

Approves final of Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan
We summarize the important features
Warwick Jones

The Greenbelt Advisory Board (GAB) had its first meeting almost a year ago. Yesterday's felt like a final meeting, and in a sense, it was. The major purpose of the GAB was to help shape a Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan for the County. This job has been completed and the Plan will now go to the Park and Recreation Commission (PRC) and Council. The actual report was written by Greenway's Inc., the consultant retained by the County to assist the GAB and the development of the Plan.

The report is complete and the draft final was reviewed with no changes proposed. We expect it will be adopted by County Council, and incorporated into the County's Comprehensive Plan. We note that the GAB is essentially an advisory body and can only make recommendations to County Council. Although we expect the County to adopt the Plan, it is under no legal obligation to accept the recommendations. Certainly it may consider minor changes. But as the Greenbelt Advisory Board (and the Transportation Advisory Board) was an integral part of the sales tax referendum, Council would be at risk to ignore the tenor of its recommendations.

Full report available on County web site
The Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan is on the County web site and can be seen by pressing here.(Actually, it is an earlier draft but the County should post the final report shortly (Tuesday 9pm)) This writer is a member of the GAB and has attended and reported on every meeting. We thought viewers might like to see a summary of the final report and its major recommendations.

$221 million for greenbelts, but present value is much less
Firstly, a recapitulation. The half-cent sales tax is expected to raise $1.3 billion over its estimated 25 year life. Of this total, $221 million is earmarked for greenbelts. This seems like a lot of money, but in the context of present land costs and inflation, it isn't. The $221 million will be raised over the next 23 years. The funds measured in terms of present values, are substantially less, maybe $120-$130 million, depending on inflation rates.

PRC allocation reduces funds to less than $100 million in present value terms
Let's assume that the present value of sales tax funds available for greenbelts is $130 million. Viewers may recall that the sales-tax referendum included a bond issue to finance acquisitions by the PRC. This bond issue was to raise $36 million with the sales tax funding interest and amortization costs. The acquisitions by the PRC will be land for use as active and passive parks, boat landings, and other items all of which fall under the GAB's definition of greenbelts. In our example, it effectively reduces the amount of funds available for other greenbelt acquisitions to less than $100 million in present value terms.

Other deductions for running expenses and Greenbelt Bank
Other deductions also have to be made. There is the cost of running the Greenbelt program, and also the amount allocated to the Charleston County Conservation Bank. Council has agreed to create the bank but its structure has yet to be determined. The GAB has estimated that roughly $10 million will be allocated to the bank from sales tax funds.

So in summary, only $80 to $90 million in present value terms will be uncommitted for future Greenbelt acquisitions and financing from sales tax funds. We hasten to add that citizens are not being shortchanged. The funds going to the PRC and the Conservation Bank will be used for Greenbelt acquisitions and funding.

Hope to leverage funds
As pointed out in a number of GAB meetings, given the cost of land, available funds will not go too far. But it is the hope of the GAB, that these funds will be leveraged in some way, providing seed money for acquisitions and financing, and drawing funds from other non-profit organizations or government entities. This hope is also extended to the funding of the new Conservation Bank, and to a lesser extent, to that of the PRC.

Recommends bond issues to raise cash immediately
The GAB is also mindful of how land prices are rising and has recommended the County issue bonds as soon as practical, interest and amortization to be met from the sales tax. The proceeds from these bonds would be used immediately to finance Greenbelt activity. The interest and amortization of the bonds would absorb the major part of future sales tax proceeds.

Funds split 70/30 between rural and urban greenbelts
One of the more contentious issues considered by the GAB was the split of funds between rural and urban areas. It decided on a 70/30 ratio but some members, essentially those representing the cities, sought a 60/40 ratio. Rural areas, for the purpose of the delineation, were defined as those outside the Urban Growth Boundary determined by the County. Urban of course, was within the boundary.

Wide definition of greenbelts
The GAB also spent some time attempting to define "Greenbelts". And for the purposes of the Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan, the definition was very wide. It included passive greenspace such as trails and greenways, active greenspace such as land used for parks and playfields, productive greenspace for agriculture and silviculture, natural resource greenspace such as forest and swamps, etc. Funds may be used for acquisition of land or for easements. It was also agreed by the GAB that sales tax funds should be used only for land or easement acquisition. Only small amounts could be used to finance access and other minor development and no funds were to be used for management.

Widen County Conservation Bank role to include administration of rural program
For the administration of funds directed towards rural areas, the GAB chose the County Conservation Bank. In the view of some members of the GAB, the creation of this bank by Council was premature and should have waited for the completion of the Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan. Although Council regarded the bank as a funding vehicle, GAB thought it could be used also to administer the rural greenbelt program. It seemed inefficient to create another entity just for administration. Some of us were concerned that the GAB's oversight role would be diminished if the bank took on administration. However the ordinance that created the Bank is very similar to that of the State Conservation Bank and its actions strictly defined. Some gray areas exist but as Council moves to more fully define the Bank's function, we hope these will be eliminated.

Grants under the rural program would be made on the basis of merit. The GAB broadly defined an application process, and also set criteria against which applications should be judged. Projects would be awarded points, reflecting the extent that they met each of the criteria, and subsequently ranked against each other.

Urban administration contentious
Administration of the funds directed to urban areas was quite contentious. The GAB originally decided that funds for urban areas should be allocated to the municipalities on the basis of the population. For example, if the City of Charleston held 30% of the population of the County, it would receive 30% of all of the urban funds. The municipalities were also to decide as to where they would spend the funds.

This decision did not sit well with some members of the GAB and although the Board decided to retain the distribution of funds on the basis of population, it decided to impose some degree of oversight on spending. The PRC would be the body to administer the funds and the evaluation of projects would be undertaken by an Urban Grant Review Committee, consisting of 6 members of which 2 would be from PRC staff, 2 from Charleston County staff and 2 from GAB members. The GAB also defined a checklist for applicants for urban funds. This was not a point system but for an application to be considered, all items had to be checked.

The identification of targets for rural greenbelts will be left to the County Conservation Bank and for urban greenbelts, the municipalities. In respect to rural greenbelts, the initiative will also lie with individuals and nonprofit organizations. We would also expect the County to play some role especially in the urban areas of the unincorporated sections of the County.

GAB sets some general targets.
Although the GAB has no role in the identification of specific targets, it has set some general targets. Presently, 161,384 acres of green space in Charleston County has been conserved by federal, state and local governments, and private-sector land trusts. The GAB has set a greenbelt target of approximately 200,000 acres, or roughly 30% of the whole of Charleston County. This implies that the County should look to set aside at least another 40,000 acres. These 40,000 acres should be split as follows:
• Rural greenbelt lands - 16,240 acres
• Francis Marion National Forest - 10,275 acres
• Lowcountry Wetlands - 5,610 acres
• PRC regional parks - 4,675 acres
• Urban greenbelt lands - 2,000 acres
• Greenway corridors - 1,200 acres

The 30% overall target and the component acres within were not determined by any mathematical formula. In part, they are amounts recommended by the consultant and reflect what has been achieved in other counties and achievable in Charleston County. They also reflect the desires of the public, expressed in two sets of public meetings throughout the County.

Initiative now lies with County and the PRC
The greenbelt initiative now lies with the County and the PRC. Assuming there are no issues with the adoption of the Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan, the County will need to move on the formation of the County Conservation Bank and its staffing. It will also need to consider the steps necessary to make the bond issues proposed by the GAB, and which probably will fall into the latter months of this year or early next year. The PRC should shortly be able to access the $36 million raised in the recent bond issue. We understand that it is presently working on the process of administering and applying these funds within its own park and recreation program. But it will also need to consider its new role in administering the urban grant program. This latter role should not be too burdensome as the allocation of funds has been set, and the initiative of defining greenbelt targets has been left with the municipalities. Viewers should go to Chapter 5, page 10 in the Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan for details of the steps in the Future Action Plan.

The future role of the GAB?
We did raise the question at today's meeting as to the future role of the GAB. The consultant's opinion was that it was defined in the sales tax ordinance and that the role was limited. The GAB was expected to have annual meetings to review the greenbelt grant programs and process, and to report to the PRC and Council. And maybe there would be other meetings from time to time when GAB input was required.

Most other members of the GAB were disinclined to discuss the matter. But it is this writer's view that the GAB was formed to also be an oversight body. This may not have been written in the sales tax ordinances, but it was certainly the message broadcast to voters at the time of the referendum. We would like to see it exercise an oversight role. But as the Chairman suggested, maybe it is better to wait for Council to consider the Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan before making recommendations relating to the GAB's future role.

Warwick Jones is a member of GAB

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