FEATURE ‌ Hit the Beach 

Early conservation requests will look to protect in-demand island

It may have taken two years to develop criteria for spending $221.5 million in county conservation money, but local officials and nonprofit groups are now readying applications to protect threatened natural resources and historic sites.

Voters approved a half-cent sales tax for road improvements in 2004 not only to pave over more earth, but also to set those dollars aside for park space and preservation, particularly those areas just as suitable for an opulent million-dollar playhouse as a stretch of preserved open space.

The money is being slowly rolled out, with $34 million on hand for grant requests likely to begin later this month or in October. The county will ask voters in November to authorize borrowing an additional $95 million against future sales tax collections that will be divided between municipal projects and those in rural areas. Charleston County has about 160,000 acres already preserved and hopes to add 40,000 more, based on a county green space plan released over the summer.

Topping most lists for historical preservation is the proposed purchase of Morris Island. In February, nonprofit The Trust for Public Land agreed to buy the property within a year from developer Bobby Ginn for $4.5 million. Ginn had recently bought the property for $6.8 million.

Morris Island is significant as the home to a pitched battle in 1863 between Confederates and a black regiment of northern troops that was the story behind the movie Glory. It's expected that the island still holds the remains of the Confederate dead. The Civil War Preservation Trust named it one of their most endangered battlefields prior to the proposed sale.

Of the $4.5 million needed, the trust has received $1.5 million from the state's Conservation Bank, but they've been waiting out the county's deliberations on how to award the conservation funding, says the trust's Charleston director, Slade Gleaton. With those questions largely resolved, the trust expects to head in front of the Parks and Recreation Commission later this month or next.

Based on their support, the group will then launch a private campaign for any leftover funds necessary. Considering support that has flowed to the Morris Island lighthouse for its preservation, Gleaton said he's hopeful there's already a base of support for preserving the nearby island.

"Given the history of Morris Island, we're hoping to get a very positive response," he says.

Gleaton notes it will be easy for the county to find other historical projects that will also be deserving of aid.

"With the activity during the Civil War and even the Revolutionary War, there are just so many sites," he says.

Folly Beach has put its weight behind suggestions that nearby Long Island be preserved after turning down development plans for the island earlier this month.

"Its history and its natural habitats are similar to Morris Island," Gleaton says.

Rebekah Dobrasko, regional director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, says there are other sites threatened by development that could use county aid, including:

• Castle Pinckney in the Charleston Harbor: The site, considered to be the first ground seized by the Confederate military, is threatened by the island's erosion and neglect. The S.C. Ports Authority owns part of the island and the rest is privately owned.

• The Progressive Club on Johns Island: A citizenship school linked to the civil rights movement, the club has been threatened by water damage since the roof was torn during Hurricane Hugo. It's considered a major priority for the national register because of its significance to the civil rights movement, Dobrasko says.

• The Ashley River and Ashley River Road: Threatened by neighboring development, both are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and each hold significance as historic transportation routes.

• The Morris Island Lighthouse — Built in 1876, the lighthouse replaced the one destroyed during the Civil War, but now faces its own battle with age.

• The Hutchinson House on Edisto Island — Built by Henry Hutchinson, thought by locals to be the first black man to build and operate a cotton gin on the island. Privately owned the home needs money for rehabilitation and stabilization.

• Sweetgrass fields — Available fields are dwindling as increased development threatens to wipe out the Gullah/Geechee tradition of sweetgrass basket-making.

Many of these sites have been recognized as historically significant for decades, and their continued disrepair highlights the need for the county money, Dobrasko says.

"There's so little funding for preservation in general," she says. "Any little bit helps."


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