Colleton’s proposed “Rural Agriculture” zoning
By Jeff Benton Dennis
Once every ten years Colleton County is required by S.C. state law to update its Land Use Plan, which is a roadmap for how future development will be allowed in the County. The City of Walterboro remains the “county seat” of Colleton and has blended well with the County’s rural heritage that began under another name, St. Bartholomew’s Parish. However, the predicted population floodgates may open in the 2010’s and the revised Land Use Plan of 2008 does not protect what the citizens want to preserve – rural quality of life.
In March 2008 County Planning Commissioner Philip Slayter held four public meetings to gather public interest about the future planning for Colleton County. A consulting firm based in Kannapolis, North Carolina (a suburb of Charlotte) has been hired by Colleton County to help craft the 2008 Land Use Plan revision. To view their proposal visit the Internet at http://www.cmrplanning.com/ColletonCounty.htm. Even if these consultants spent a few days touring Colleton County, is there any way that they could come to understand what rural heritage means to a farmer or a longtime resident? The citizens that attended the public meetings completed short surveys and most asked the County to preserve the natural beauty of Colleton County. However, when the proposed 2008 Land Use Plan revision was unveiled in the June 13 edition of The Press and Standard, the “Rural Agriculture” zoning was set at one unit per one-half acre. The proposed change is a DECREASE in zoning protection from the 1999 Land Use Plan. While the term “Rural Agriculture” sounds nice, zoning at one unit per one-half acre really means – wide open for development.
Pro-growth at any Cost?
Colleton County has a chance to be preserved more than her neighboring coastal counties, Beaufort and Charleston, because of geography and something called the ACE Basin. A HUGE misconception is that the ACE Basin lands are only south of highway 17, but in fact ALL of Colleton County is part of the ACE Basin Focus Area. The only difference is that the lands south of Highway 17 have already been protected by conservation easements.
While the confluence of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers is indeed pristine and was rightly protected by forward-thinking landowners, the tributaries that course through the entire County feed the Basin and are also in need of protection. A perfect example is The Great Swamp sanctuary in the City of Walterboro, a portion of the Ashepoo River that has been made into a City Park. Everyone is glad that the water quality is safe, the critters are safe, the timber is safe and City leaders hope it becomes an attraction to gather and educate tourists one day, adopting a slogan of “We’re the front porch of the ACE Basin.”
The Great Swamp is an important piece in the jigsaw puzzle of rivers that form something totally unique - the ACE Basin; but other important pieces are left unguarded such as Willow Swamp, Doctor’s Creek, and the Salkehatchie bottomlands to name but a few. These water sources are all bordered by pastures, agricultural lands, or by forest lands that serve to protect water quality. If these rural lands are developed, such as the proposed zoning would allow, then future water quality for the entire ACE Basin is at risk.
Colleton leaders need to understand that the farmer using his John Deere tractor on the “home place” is proud of his agricultural heritage and that he is contributing to the greater good of the County by practicing land stewardship. The beautiful County Courthouse renovation in downtown Walterboro is something to be admired by the rural-dwelling citizen when they come to town. Why can’t the leaders pushing for pro-growth appreciate the natural beauty of the pastoral countryside when they leave the county seat and drive out to the furthest reaches of the County?
Appreciation for rural heritage before it is forever gone demands stronger zoning in agricultural areas. In 2001 the Colleton County Planning Commission approved a development in the rural Hudson Mill area calling for 65 modular homes on 80 acres of fallow farm land. The speculative real estate developer from Maryland applied for 65 wells and 65 septic tanks – all of which DHEC approved. Under the 2008 revision, out-of-state developers might ask for 150 homes, 150 wells, and 150 septic tanks in a similar scenario. Either of these neighborhood developments out in the “country” would forever change the rural character of that area.
A time for Action
Sportsmen who pursue fish and game in Colleton County should be the first to speak up to protect wild places. Sprawl creates habitat fragmentation that greatly affects game patterns and availability of hunting leases. Traditional agricultural and forestry practices such as using prescribed fire to burn off fields or forests would become harder to implement. Protection of rural agricultural lands will always be a key for sporting traditions like hunting and fishing.
The Colleton County revision process has not reached out to conservation groups in the County to involve them with the process. The ACE Basin Task Force and the Colleton County Soil and Water Conservation District are just two examples.
ACE Basin Task Force Chairman Mike McShane said, “Our interest in Colleton County is to protect as much acreage as possible, using all available resources, to retain traditional and historic uses as related to the timber industry, wildlife habitat and recreational uses. Beaufort and Charleston county governments have responded with sensitivity and stronger zoning when approached by the Task Force because they recognize the value that the ACE Basin brings to their respective counties.”
If a pro-growth plan calling for one unit per one-half acre on rural agricultural lands does not suit Colleton County, then it is the responsibility of the citizens to contact County officials about the future of development in the County. Contacting members of Colleton County Council is a good start, because they will eventually vote on the adoption of the 2008 Land Use Plan revision.
Perhaps a phone call from citizens to elected officials and the County planning director will help raise awareness that rural heritage is the backbone of Colleton County’s make-up. If similar-minded voices sing a chorus of conservation, and planning leaders listen to them, then speculative large-scale subdivision development in the 2010’s need not be feared in rural Colleton County.
Future of the ACE
If protection from sprawl development is achieved, Colleton County will always demonstrate to others that it was our rural heritage that provided the convictions to enforce the conservation of the precious rural lands of the ACE Basin.
Jeff Benton Dennis is a Lowcountry outdoorsman with deep Colleton County roots. His family has practiced seven generations of stewardship at their property in western Colleton County known as Snipe Hill.