The Edisto River is a haven for wildlife and outdoor pursuits. The 72,000-acre East Edisto Project claims it will balance conservation with development
The tannin-stained black water of the Edisto River is a magical place. Only 20 miles from Charleston, boaters, fishermen, and outdoorsmen can escape into a paradise of waterfowl, cypress trees, and sandy banks. For 80 years, the largest landholder along the river has been timber company MeadWestvaco, which owns 400,000 acres in South Carolina. Although clear-cuts have threatened the Edisto's wildlife, water quality, and eroding banks (as reported in City Paper — "River Run," July 5, 2006), the benefit of a single owner has left the river completely free of encroachment by subdivisions.
On May 2 of this year, MeadWestvaco announced that 72,000 acres of land in East Edisto, a parcel that lies primarily along the river between Summerville and Hwy. 17, would no longer be used for timber production. The company hopes to avoid the bitter public sentiment that arose from their 2004 sale of the 6,600-acre Watson Hill tract on Hwy. 61, over which North Charleston and Summerville are currently embroiled in a land rights lawsuit. To that end, they've hired EDAW, a San Francisco-based environmental consulting firm, to help gather citizen input about what the public would like to see happen on the tract.
After holding four "neighborhood meetings" in the communities surrounding the plot during June, MeadWestvaco hosted a public gathering last Thursday, July 12, at the North Charleston Convention Center, attracting about 180 concerned citizens. CEO John Luke explained to the crowd that lumber companies across the nation are finding that maintaining large tracts of land is no longer necessary for their operations, and that his company is determined to be good land stewards while still generating revenue for shareholders.
"We are genuinely interested in knowing what people would like to see and what they're concerned about," says Luke. "How can you come up with an idea that you want the community to embrace if you do it in the closet?"
After presentations by Luke and Ken Seeger, MeadWestvaco's president of community development and land management, the crowd was split into five splinter sessions mediated by EDAW representatives who gathered questions, problems to avoid, and suggestions to include as attendees expressed their thoughts. Ideas included protecting a significant buffer along the Edisto River, constructing a new airport, creating an environmental education center and a new state park.
The East Edisto project claims a "conservation-driven master plan" but acknowledges "inevitable growth," with the hope of building walkable, sustainable, new communities. The undeveloped, forested land is essentially a blank slate, and citizen input at the meeting diverged into open discussion about what people want in their own community. Each of the five groups raised concerns about building before infrastructure is in place, making new communities pedestrian friendly, and creating affordable housing.
"We don't want any more Crowfield Plantations!" said one attendee, referring to the sprawling subdivision built on former MeadWestvaco land. Others expressed displeasure with the lack of affordable housing at environmentally-friendly developments like I'On and Noisette. Many people were anti-development, and each group requested regulated density plans, publicly accessible open space, and protection of wetlands and critical wildlife areas.
The East Edisto announcement coincided with a zoning change in Orangeburg County that allows farm and agricultural land to be used for industry, potentially threatening the Four Holes Swamp watershed that feeds into the Edisto River, Charleston's primary source of drinking water. S.C. Audubon Society Director Norman Brunswig is disappointed in the failed efforts to protect the watershed but says that new options to protect wetland buffer areas are in the works.
As MeadWestvaco pools the public input gathered, it intends to work closely with organizations like the Audubon Society, the Trust for Public Land, and the Coastal Conservation League as it puts together a preliminary plan, scheduled for public announcement in early fall. All of East Edisto lies in a 125,000-acre "important bird area" that MeadWestvaco sought designation for earlier this decade, and Audubon is currently mapping the areas they consider most critical. "I'm confident that they're going to integrate protection into their comprehensive plan," says Brunswig. "We fully expect to have a lot of input on what takes place down there."
Both Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and Coastal Conservation League President Dana Beach have expressed support for the project, citing MeadWestvaco's proactive approach to regional planning, openness to cooperating with environmental groups, and hosting a transparent, public planning process. Considering the ongoing Watson Hill debacle, developers seem to be acknowledging the benefit of not locking horns with environmental groups.
"We want to be part of the growth solution," says MeadWestvaco CEO Luke. The master plan will include "select land sales over time," but also promises open space and land set aside for conservation and recreation. East Edisto also claims that the transfer from a single landholder to multiple owners will come gradually and responsibly. "We're committed to the majority of the property maintaining a rural character," says Luke. "We plan to remain neighbors for quite awhile."
Public comments from MeadWestvaco's community meetings will be available at www.EastEdisto.com in the coming week.