Beaufort’s secret new park draws fire

in Voices by

By Bill Rauch

This photo shows the cornfield at the corner of Hwy 21 and Washington Farms Rd in Lobeco. The county bought this land and intends to build a gun park on it.
This photo shows the cornfield at the corner of Hwy 21 and Washington Farms Rd in Lobeco. The county bought this land and intends to build a gun park on it.

The shooting and especially the taking cover has begun over Beaufort County’s new “passive” gun park, proposed to be built on 72 acres in the Lobeco area. The planned facility will be located at the corner of Highway 21 and Washington Farms Road, located about half way between the Whale Branch Bridge and the Garden’s Corner roundabout.

County Council voted at their December, 2014 meeting to commit $875,000 of the newly passed Rural and Critical Lands Preservation bond money to purchase the land, and for an easement on 144 adjacent acres. The unannounced vote followed a behind-closed-doors executive session discussion of the purchase. There were no comments from the public about the proposal at the meeting. There wasn’t even a newspaper story about it for nearly a month. Many of the park’s neighbors still don’t know of the county’s plans.

The scarcely noticed vote was the first to commit Rural and Critical Lands Preservation dollars since the referendum passed.

At a small late-November informational meeting Beaufort County Planning Director Tony Criscitello is said by two Lobeco residents who attended the meeting to have pledged that the developer who will lease, design, build and operate the site would be required to build a 50-foot high berm around the shooting area to contain the noise of the shooting. Since then the county has walked back that number, now saying the height of the berm will be up to the gun park’s developer. A county “preliminary noise analysis showed no adverse effects to surrounding residential properties,” County Media Relations/FOIA Specialist Joy Nelson added.

In addition to the perceived abuse of Rural and Critical Lands bond monies, and after chastening Council for the uncharacteristic secretiveness that has surrounded the gun park initiative, opponents of the gun park who spoke in open session to County Council at their February 9th meeting also objected to the proposal because “a gun park is going to attract to our neighborhood non-residents with guns that you would not want in your neighborhood;” “we have enough trouble with guns here already;” “a gun park will make the area noisier;” “the lead from the BBs over time will get into the groundwater;”  “a gun park will bring light pollution;” “a gun park will attract poachers;” and  “a gun park’s noise will decrease the property values of the land for miles around it.”

Proponents of the Rural and Critical Lands Preservation program who spoke to Council at their February 9th meeting said building a berm to protect a gun park where a cornfield used to be isn’t “passive” and isn’t preserving rural land or preserving the rural character of the Hwy. 21 entrance to Beaufort.

George Johnston, who served on the Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Board from 2010-13 agrees. “That’s disturbing the land,” Johnston told The Island News, “That’s not taking a walk in the park.”

The park’s supporters like Kenny Zentner of Lady’s Island cite the area’s need for an inexpensive gun range.  Opponents don’t disagree.  They just say the proposed location is wrong. And they question how inexpensive it will finally be. Will Beaufort County use more bond money to build the park, including the 360-degree noise-mitigating berm, or will the gun park’s developer be required to come out of pocket for those costs?

The County has two passive parks up and running: Crystal Lake on Lady’s Island and Fort Fremont at Land’s End. And it has two in development: Wigeon Point on Lemon Island and The Okatie Regional Preserve. The county purchased the 56-acre Okatie Regional Preserve in 2012 to protect the headwaters of the Okatie River and to prevent further development stemming from the Buckwalter development area.

Permitted activities at those four parks, according to The Beaufort County Open Land Trust attorney Ken Driggers, are hiking and picnicking.

But there isn’t the money in hiking and picnicking that there is in gun ranges. The gun park is proposed to feature skeet and trap for shot-gunners and pistol and rifle ranges too. “Part of the appeal to County Council is the developer would pay for the improvements and pay a lease term to the county too … so there would be proceeds … revenues,” Reed Armstrong of the Coastal Conservation League who has been watching gun park developments closely observed to The Island News last week. “People will see that as an abuse,” he added.

It was purchases more like the Okatie Regional Preserve that proponents of the Rural and Critical Lands Preservation program touted in their campaign to persuade voters to vote for the most recent bond referendum.  The program’s most prominent cheerleader, State Senator Tom Davis, for example didn’t mention the proposed gun park, the passive park program, or that passive parks bought and improved with bond money could become general fund revenue sources for the county in his October 20, 2014 op-ed that appeared in The Island Packet. That piece led with Davis’ description of the program as “ a land preservation program that, for the past 14 years, has protected our county’s unique historic and environmental resources.”

“This gun park will move a lot of people to become very cynical unless a formal redefinition of the uses of Rural and Critical Lands bond money is brought before the public for a full-dressed hearing,” George Johnston added. “They will feel they were misled.”