At least part of Carolina Forest will remain a forest.
Although the residential hub is often the poster child for the challenges of suburban growth, more than 750 acres of private land in the area went into conservation easements in 2018, according to public records. That’s more acreage than any other section of Horry County preserved last year, and the total doesn’t include the county government’s purchase of nearly 3,700 acres along International Drive for conservation.
“We wanted to preserve the land,” said Roger Grigg, a developer with Leonard, Grigg & Associates. “It’s a beautiful piece of property.”
Grigg is referring to the 715 acres owned by one of his firm’s businesses (CottonPatch Timber Co.). The land sits between the county’s 3,700 acres — known as the Independent Republic Heritage Preserve — and the Waterford Plantation subdivision. The property went into conservation in December.
Grigg acknowledged there were business factors in the decision to preserve the land, specifically state and federal tax breaks. And he pointed out that more than 110 acres along Gardner Lacy Road could still be developed. But he noted that his company opted not to build on some of the uplands that are now under a conservation easement.
“It could have been developed with condominiums, apartments or whatever,” he said. “It’s very valuable property.”
David Schwerd, the county’s interim director of planning and zoning, confirmed that a plan for a large multifamily project had been submitted for the site before it became conservation land.
“That plan would no longer be able to be constructed,” he said via email. “We have not seen any development plans for the remainder, post conservation easement.”
Grigg expects the land that isn't in the easement will see some sort of residential development, though nothing specific has been decided.
Grigg said he’s placed property into conservation easements before: once with the Ducks Unlimited organization and twice with North American Land Trust. The latter group has been particularly active in Carolina Forest in recent years, trying to protect key resources from development.
In 2017, the land trust helped preserve nearly 145 acres, including about 50 off River Oaks Drive.
The Pennsylvania-based group works on projects across the country, but it has focused on the Southeast because of the region’s growing population and comparatively low rate of conservation.
In Carolina Forest, the land trust has shown a strong interest in protecting the Carolina Bays, the elliptical freshwater wetlands found primarily in North and South Carolina.
The bays are what led the land trust to help Grigg’s company set up the conservation easement for the 715 acres, said Stephen Johnson, president of NALT.
“Every piece of ground is different from the other — but this one is really pretty special because nearly the entire acreage in that easement is one ginormous Carolina Bay,” he said. “So we’re able to project the Carolina Bay, including its rim, a little bit of adjacent forest to the south, and it is contiguous with other protected land.”
In some ways, the easement was a compromise.
“They recognized the sensitivity of the Carolina Bay,” Johnson said of the property owner. “They and we found a good balance between conservation and retaining limited use.”
In Horry County, the land trust has completed multiple conservation projects clustered around the northern part of the county and extending toward — although not connecting to — the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, the 9,000-acre site that borders International Drive.
Apart from the 715 acres, the trust also helped secure an easement for nearly 60 acres in the River Oaks Drive area last year. That property is adjacent to another tract that went into conservation in 2017.
Over the last two years, nearly 12,000 acres has been added to the county’s parks and open space network. Countywide, there are more than 64,000 acres of protected land.
“This trend has actually been occurring for quite some time,” said Leigh Kane, a principal planner with Horry County Government.
However, she pointed out that North American Land Trust has been more willing to focus on protecting sites in developed areas — such as Carolina Forest — as opposed to the conservation groups that try to preserve land along the Waccamaw or Little Pee Dee rivers.
But regardless of where land is conserved, she said preservation makes managing growth easier.
“It helps us have a little bit more certainty about what’s going to happen with that land,” Kane said. “We don’t have to sit there and guess whether or not a property’s going to be developed. … Now we know that those properties are not going to have impacts to the infrastructure, such as our road network in some of these geographies where, if they could have been developed, it was something that we were going to have to be prepared for.”
Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236