CHARLESTON, SC — The Lowcountry Open Land Trust has kicked off its campaign to raise the final $1.2 million to purchase 17 acres of land to expand Angel Oak Park, but concerns already are circulating about potential development on another adjacent parcel.
Leaders from the trust, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, County Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey and Tom O’Rourke, executive director of the county’s Park & Recreation Commission, launched the fundraising campaign Wednesday on Johns Island.
The press conference was held in the shade of the Angel Oak, a beloved, massive live oak believed to be at least several centuries old that has been a tourist attraction on and off for 30 years.
Charleston County Council on Tuesday approved contributing $2.4 million from its rural Greenbelt money toward the $3.6 million purchase. The Lowcountry Open Land Trust has a contract on the property and has until Sept. 30 to raise the rest of the money and buy it.
Conservationists have said they want the land around the historic tree protected from intense development to maintain the health of Angle Oak.
The land the trust is trying to buy is part of a 34-acre parcel that was going to be developed with multi-family homes and businesses, but it fell into foreclosure in the economic downturn. The other 17 acres still are zoned for development.
Last week, County Councilman Joe Qualey proposed that council agree to contribute the $2.4 million only if the city downgraded the zoning on the other 17 acres so it couldn’t be developed.
The rest of council didn’t agree to that condition, but trust officials agreed to work with the city to try to change the zoning.
But Riley said it would be illegal for the city to make that change. “If you rezone it, it’s a taking,” he said.
Jeffrey Tibbals, a lawyer from Nexsen Pruet who is representing the Raleigh-based Coastal Federal Credit Union, which owns the 34-acre parcel, said someone is buying the other 17 acres.
“The remaining property is under contract with a private party who seeks to build a community as approved by all relevant permitting authorities. It would be premature to even discuss any other outcome for the remaining property,” Tibbals said.
Riley said he plans to recommend to Charleston City Council that it contribute $250,000 toward the purchase. “When land is acquired by the public for park purposes, that is forever,” he said.
Elizabeth Hagood, the trust’s executive director, called the 17-acre property “an ecological preserve.”
And keeping that land in its natural state is essential to the health of the Angel Oak, she said. The ancient tree “needs an expanded forest that’s natural.”