COMPREHENSIVE PLAN UPDATE

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 Community groups point out ‘holes’ in county’s update of planning document 

 By Mike McCombs 

BLUFFTON – The Beaufort County Planning Department hosted a public hearing Monday at the Buckwalter Recreation Center in Bluffton to provide the public an opportunity to review and comment on the county’s comprehensive plan update – Envision Beaufort County. 

The comprehensive plan is a state-required document that helps guide and shape the county’s development policies over the next couple of decades. The document can be a powerful weapon and ally for land owners, politicians, developers and private citizens, alike. 

Among the public comments, the battle between development and land preservation was a hot topic, as was the fairness of the county’s draft plan to its Black residents, specifically on St. Helena Island. 

Cutting people out 

Dawn Alston Paige of the Lowcountry Equitable Land and Resource Trust, a community development advocacy group based on St. Helena Island, believes the plan keeps Black citizens from improving their quality of life.

“We looked at the plan, and it was essentially codifying Black Americans into the bottom caste for the next 20 years,” Alston Paige said after Monday’s meeting. “It is a continuation of displacement of Black Americans because there’s a consistent, targeted under-investment in the Black community and it’s showing up in the income levels, the wealth levels. … When we look at the plan, there’s a lot of talk of preservation and retention, but you know those are also synonymous with stagnation.”

Alston Paige believes that the county is more than willing to take advantage of its Black population – in terms of taking Federal money based on the poor statistics of the Black community – but then simply refusing to invest that money in places that it would benefit that same Black population.

“When you look at how the dollars are being spent, (Blacks are) not getting any real benefit from the taxes that they’re paying,” Alston Paige said. “It’s very reminiscent of our experience here in this country, putting in tax dollars, putting in labor and getting no return, and I just see a continuation of that when I look at that plan. The only enthusiasm for any kind of investment (in the Black community) is policing.”

Alston Paige said the plan will not only codify loopholes that prevent many Blacks from monetizing their land, but it denies them things like affordable housing and, in turn, affects the overall quality of life on a daily basis.

“The plan ironically states that it wants to improve the quality of life of the residents and have their jobs where they live so they can walk to work,” she said. “So what about St. Helena Island? There’s nothing there. They have to get up earlier, travel farther, spend more money to go to work or go to school once they hit 6th grade. All those things negatively impact the quality of life.

“It’s a little disturbing to listen to an all-white council or planning committee wax poetic about how lovely it is to live here in Beaufort County.”

The Black community isn’t thought of in terms of growth, Alston Paige said. It’s always retention and just holding on, but no thoughts of growth and no imagination.

That’s why Alston Paige and Lowcountry Equitable Land and Resource Trust has come up with its response to Envision Beaufort County, which is Imagine St. Helena. The document is conceived as an addition to the comprehensive plan that the group would like to see adopted by the county.

Alston Paige said she expected to have a final version on Thursday, June 10.

The addition contains six capital projects for development on St. Helena Island, including a Grades 6-12 academic campus, a center for the arts and a water/sewer impact study.

In the end, Alston Paige said the current plan simply represents a lack of return on investment for the Black community. Their tax dollars aren’t working for them.

“When I see that plan,” she said, “I see them planning for us not to be here. That’s what I see. Because there are no plans for us.”

Responsible growth, but …

The Coastal Conservation League’s (CCL) stated goal is to work “with citizens and government on proactive, comprehensive solutions to environmental challenges,” in theory, something the comprehensive plan should help facilitate.

The CCL’s South Coast Project Manager Juliana Smith said that after reviewing the four documents associated with this comprehensive plan update, the group was generally pleased but had some specific recommendations.

“In general, the plan is progressive and will guide responsible growth,” Smith said during public comment. “However, we were disappointed to see some exclusions of critically important recommendations that we have been advocating for.”

Juliana Smith, left, Jessie White and Anne Cooke look at some of the planning boards on display prior to the Beaufort County Planning public hearing Monday evening in Bluffton. An open-house-style community meeting is planned for 6 p.m. Thursday at the public library on Johnathan Francis, Sr. Road on St. Helena Island. Photo by Bob Sofaly.

Smith gave four specific examples.

– The CCL wants the county to limit the number of sand mines allowed on the sea islands, citing the degradation of rural and agricultural lands, the impact on roadways in rural areas, and the effect on waterways and air quality – all impacting the quality of life for residents.

– The group recommends cooperation with the Town of Yemassee, which has approved more than 270 annexations since 2018. Smith said that appetite for rampant growth threatens nearby rural communities such as Sheldon and Dale and puts a high priority on creating specific community-driven plans for those areas.

– The CCL wants Gullah/Geechee graveyards to be explicitly included as “sites worthy of protection and restoration, and that ownership be returned to rightful families if they so desire or that rights of access are formally and permanently protected.”

Smith called it “unconscionable” to continue to allow these areas to be threatened and desecrated by development and adjacent property owners, asking that specific protections be placed on these sites.

– And finally, Smith said creating community-derived plans for rural communities, including St. Helena Island, must be made a priority.

“As recommended in the comprehensive plan, this process must be extremely transparent and community-led and, additionally, must result in implementable outcomes that empower the communities to thrive in ways they desire, maintain their sense of place, and improve their quality of life,” Smith said.

Conservation and economic opportunities are not mutually exclusive, she said.

Clock is winding down

For interested citizens who are not familiar with the comprehensive plan update, it can be found online at https://bit.ly/3x3UrVh.

There will be one more public meeting focused on the update, from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, June 10 at the St. Helena Branch Library. The final update, in some form or another, is likely to be approved by the full County Council in September.

Mike McCombs is the editor of The Island News and can be reached at TheIslandNews@gmail.com.

Top photo: Beaufort County Comprehenive Plan chairman Ed Pappas, left, and commission members Caroline Ferman and Kevin Hennelly listen to public comments on the Beaufort County Comprehensive Plan update at the beginning of a public hearing Monday evening in Bluffton. An open-house-style community meeting is planned for 6 p.m. Thursday at the public library on Johnathan Francis, Sr. Road on St. Helena Island. Photo by Bob Sofaly.