By Justin Jarrett
One by one, community members stepped to the microphone at the Bluffton Library on Monday night and laid out the myriad reasons a park on the Whitehall Property was so important to them.
One by one, the members of the Beaufort County Council revealed the impact those statements had on their vote on the matter.
After more than an hour of public comment and discussion, the Council voted unanimously to enter into negotiations to purchase a 9.72-acre portion of the picturesque Whitehall Property from the development company that owns it. The Beaufort City Council previously approved a 30-year agreement with the County to provide maintenance for the park.
Even several Council members who expressed concerns about the proposal — namely the cost (the vote authorizes the County to pay up to $4,371,000 for the property) and the fact that the City of Beaufort has not agreed to foot any of the bill — voted in favor of Councilman York Glover’s motion, in large part because of the public comment from a number of the more than 6,000 community members who have signed a petition in support of the project.
“I came here tonight convinced I was going to vote against this,” said Bluffton Councilman Jerry Stewart, “but I do have to take into account the comments that were made here this evening. A lot of the citizens of the county are clearly behind this. … Because of what you said tonight and because of the conviction of how you presented it, I’ve been convinced to vote in favor it it.”
Community members young and old gushed about the property on the Lady’s Island side of the Beaufort River and what an expansive park there will mean for generations of Beaufortonians to come.
Beaufortonian Kathy Mixon said the Council would one day be hailed as “visionaries” for voting to preserve the land as a park, and Fereol de Gastyne referred to the property as “the crown jewel of Beaufort.”
Stewart and Councilman Steve Fobes expressed their concern that the City of Beaufort had not agreed to share in the cost, which is a break in precedent from previous land purchases in which the County and municipality have split the bill. They also balked at the price tag, and Councilman Stu Rodman worried that the County will end up covering significantly more than half of the developer’s cost to purchase the entire 20-acre tract.
But advocates say having a park on the property for the foreseeable future is priceless.
“It’s what’s the value to the community that’s really important to us,” Councilman Brian Flewelling said, “and as we can see, this is very important to the community.”
Just before the Council voted on the proposal, Chairman Paul Sommerville recounted a story from his childhood, during which his grandfather would take him to the Whitehall Property.
Now the next generation of Beaufort County residents will be able to share similar memories.