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Greenbelt Advisory Board

Fundamentals of the County Greenbelt Plan reaffirmed unanimously
Conservation easements a better tool than fee simple purchases for conservation

Warwick Jones

The Greenbelt Advisory Board (GAB) today affirmed the principles of the County Greenbelt Plan. The GAB was asked by County Council late last year to take another look at the plan and make recommendation for changes. This request followed the expression of unease by some Council members that much of the green belt funds was directed to the purchase of conservation easements where no public access was possible. Some Council members thought that fee simple acquisitions would be better and which would allow public access.

Consultant returns to address the GAB
At today’s meeting, called specifically to address the Council’s request, members of the GAB listened to a presentation by Mr. Chuck Flink of Greenways, the consultant hired by the County to guide the Board though its deliberations when it first addressed the creation of the Greenbelt Plan in 2005. Only 6 of the original members serve on the 14 member Board today. The presentation today was largely a recapitulation of the process and conclusions drawn during the formulation of the Plan. But it also concluded with some description of greenbelt plans of other counties in the US and the benefits of conservation easements over fee simple acquisitions.

Mr. Flink was highly complimentary of the County Greenbelt program and ranked it amongst the top 5 in the US. Some greenbelt programs in other Counties begun in recent years had been influenced by it. He noted that Charleston’s Greenbelt Plan had been formed in meetings of the GAB for over a year and that that there was extensive involvement of the public, both at GAB meetings and in public meetings throughout the County. There had been overwhelming support for the preservation of space in rural areas.

A review of goals and achievement
Charleston program had set goals. The acreage amounts achieved to date, and the targets are as follows:
Rural lands – 6,738 acres (41% of goal)
National Forest -3,270 acres (32 % of goal)
Wetlands -4,737 acres (84% of goal)
Urban Lands -182 acres (9% of goal)
Greenways - 5 acres (9% of goal)
Total - 16,976 acres (42% of goal)

Mr. Flink also noted that 62% of the total funds available had been awarded and that it was unlikely that the original targeted number of acres would be achieved by the use of sales tax monies alone. He suggested the Board look at the Tool Box section of the Greenbelt Plan and study some of the other tools that might be available to secure greenbelts. He specifically mentioned local ordinances that could be modified to encourage greenbelt creation. He also suggested that the municipalities might cooperate in joint ventures to provide parks.

More American counties and communities are completing open space/greenspace plans. Conservation easements are one of the most favored tools amongst both land owners and conservation organizations. But public access and public benefit were widely debated issues for programs funded by tax dollars, Mr Flink said.

The benefits of conservation easements
Mr Flink spoke at length about the benefits of conservation easements compared to fee simple acquisitions. He said the major issue usually involves taxpayer benefit and access by citizens. He argued that conservation easements provide ample public benefit without including the right of public access.

The benefits he said were:

Clean air (protects ecological function)
Clean water (protects source waters)
Aquifer recharge (the set aside of undisturbed lands)
Flood management (critical for coastal areas)
Wildlife and Plant habitat (biodiversity)
Buffering of adjacent land uses
Conservation of scenic and heritage landscape resources
Sustain quality of life and lifestyle
And most importantly
Protect the low country way of life.

Mr Flink also noted that the ownership of land brought with it the obligation of management. He instanced Jefferson County in Colorado which had made fee simple acquisitions when it began its program 40 years ago. The program had accumulated 48,768 acres but the County was obliged to employ 100 or so persons to maintain the properties. He noted that conserved land is not a drain on public services and that accommodation of human use usually includes the creation of parking lots, the provision of potable water, sewer, trash collection, safety and security.

We would concur with all of Mr. Flink’s opinions but would add another which we think is most important - the creation of conservation easements is far cheaper on a per acre basis than fee simple acquisitions.

More publicity for the Greenbelt Program
Board member Koenig commented on the enthusiasm of Mr. Flink and thought that an attempt be made to better educate the community of the benefits of the Greenbelt program. This was endorsed and encouraged later during public participation by a representative of the Coastal Conservation League. Chair Maybank also noted that she hoped that Mr. Flink would be able to also address County Council.

There were a number of folk that spoke in Citizens Participation. The representatives of the National Wildlife Federation and The Edisto Island Open Land Trust both spoke in support of conservation easements and their benefits. The latter entity had received funding from the Greenbelt program to add 3,200 acres to its conservation inventory, now 16,000 acres. The acquisitions may not appear to be a lot but they were significant because they contained significant wet lands and connected many of the properties.

There was little discussion when the Board began its final deliberations. There were a number of minor issues that needed to be discussed that carried over from a previous meeting. But with the guidance of the Chair, the Board addressed only the principles of the plan – essentially the definitions, vision, objectives and means. And the Board was unanimous in its vote that that there should be no change. If the Council accepts the recommendation of the GAB, then the latter will meet again to address some of the minor issues that have been raised over the Plan.

Disclosure: The author is a member of the Greenbelt Advisory Board

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