SALES TAX REFERENDUM AIMS TO MANAGE DEVELOPMENT
BY MARK E. LETT
A penny doesn’t get you much. But put enough pennies together — and maybe, just maybe — you can amass a pile to protect and preserve precious swatches of Lowcountry land.
Such is the thinking of Beaufort County Council members asking voters to approve a proposed “Greenspace” sales tax to purchase land, establish conservation easements and limit density and development.
Voters in November will decide a referendum that calls for a one-cent sales tax in the county for two years, beginning in May 2023. Officials estimated a penny tax will raise $100 million, with at least 40 percent coming from visitors and tourists, county officials said.
Exempted from the tax would be purchases of gas, medicine and groceries.
The path to a tax vote was set by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who wrote and sponsored a bill that last spring that won wide approval in the Senate and House. Gov. Henry McMaster signed the bill into law in May.
For Davis, the measure speaks to his oftenstated concern about the collision between development and the Lowcountry ecosystem, environment and ambiance. In pressing the county council to put the sales tax on the November ballot, Davis said county trends indicated developed land would increase by more than 150 percent over the next two decades.
Davis said the velocity of development reminds him of the downside of rapid growth across the Chesapeake Bay area, where he grew up. The mid- Atlantic region hosts the largest estuary in the United States, where runoff, impaired water quality and stressed ecosystems have emerged.
“We have a chance to prevent that sort of fate for this area,” Davis said.
Setting aside so-called “greenspace” land is increasingly common in South Carolina, creating parks, scenic paths, historic sites, working farms, and safeguarded rural land along streams and bodies of water. Since 1999, the Beaufort County Rural and Critical Land Preservation Program has completed more than 120 land-protection projects, preserving nearly 30,000 acres.
Among the efforts supported by the preservation program: securing land as a buffer to the Marine Corps Air Station, preserving the Mitchelville Community and its history as a post-Civil War freedman village, and various initiatives to protect rural and natural areas throughout the county.
County Administrator Eric Greenway said the penny tax for greenspace is an additional tool for managing development and preservation. Paul Sommerville, vicechairman of the Beaufort County Council, was among the council members voting to place the greenspace tax on the ballot. The measure would “provide some relief to rapid development,” he said.
The council voted 9-1 for the two-year tax plan, replacing a previously considered plan for a onecent tax for four years.
While advancing the greenspace measure, council members left a proposed tax hike for transportation needs by the side of the road.
Transportation tax fails
An initiative for a one-cent sales tax for transportation failed to advance on a 5-5 vote of the council. If approved as proposed, the measure would have raised an estimated $700 million over 10 years for an array of transportation and mobility projects.
A citizens’ committee shaped the transportation plan during more than 12 weeks of meetings, said Dean Moss, chairman of the committee and retired head of the Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority.
Revenues from a transportation tax would have been targeted for rural and developed areas of the county, ranging from paving dirt roads to sidewalks and pathways and improvements in traffic control and safety. Project targets were identified throughout the county, stretching from Lady’s Island to Beaufort, Bluffton, Hilton Head and the Jasper County line.
The plan envisioned by Moss and the committee called for placing tax revenues into a variety of “buckets” to be allocated for specific transportation projects and needs over the next decade.
Managing growth and transportation is among the top challenges facing the county, Moss said.
“You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,” he said. “We all know we can’t pave our way out of this issue.”
Council members and other stakeholders said they expect to revisit transportation needs and taxation in the next couple of years. “There is urgency and a window of opportunity,” said Davis.
Sommerville said addressing the transportation issue is essential to manage the county’s cycle of “more people, more roads, more roads, more people.”