Poplar Grove/Watson Hill Case Study

The conservation battles for Poplar Grove and Watson Hill demonstrate key elements of “whole place preservation”
watson hill mapTwo converging development threats catalyzed major preservation efforts around the Ashley River Corridor beginning in 2003. MeadWestvaco’s sale of the 4,500-acre Poplar Grove parcel in southern Dorchester County, followed shortly thereafter by their sale of the 6,600-acre Watson Hill tract backing up to Ashley River Road, advanced the threat of more than 8,500 new residential units, along with hotels, golf courses and schools, in this rural historic district. These developments would have radically altered the fragile corridor, turning former plantations, rice fields and forests into crowded subdivisions, clogging Ashley River Road with traffic, and destroying the rural character of the landscape.

At the time, the collaborative and often off-the-cuff efforts mounted to fight these proposed developments were innovative and bold, but hardly premeditated. They certainly did not follow a prescribed conservation playbook; as such a thing did not exist. In retrospect, however, these dual and overlapping campaigns can serve as a case study for considering how various elements of whole place preservation can coalesce into an effective toolkit for protecting large historic landscapes.

Fortunately, efforts to educate the public about the historic, ecological and cultural significance of the Ashley River corridor had been in process and ongoing well before the Poplar Grove and Watson Hill developments were proposed. The historic and cultural significance of the former plantations along the Ashley River has long been recognized and celebrated locally by preservationists and historians, and landmarks such as Middleton Place and Drayton Hall are well known throughout the region, from school children who visit on field trips to tourists who pilgrimage out along Ashley River Road (Highway 61). This recognition, however, may have given the public an unfounded sense of security regarding the district’s status. “I think people have a false perception that everything is protected out here,” Charles Duell, president of Middleton Place Foundation, told the Post & Courier at the time.

While well aware of the cultural, ecological and historical significance of the Ashley River district, the public was perhaps less informed of relevant zoning laws, or lack thereof, and the very real threat of development.

In 1995, the National Trust for Historic Preservation underscored this threat by naming the Ashley River Historic District one of the nation’s 11 Most Endangered sites. The National Trust raised the corridor’s profile to the national level and put the local and broader public on alert that protection is not a given. This corridor is home to nationally-renowned public historic sites Drayton Hall, Magnolia Gardens and Middleton Place. This long, narrow corridor between Ashley River Road and the Ashley River is dense with architectural landmarks and landscapes of national historic significance. In 1995, its roughly 30,000 forested acres was not yet dense with development but rapid regional growth and development meant Charleston’s urban boundary was creeping out along Ashley River Road. Seeing the threat of sprawl coupled with an absence of local protective zoning laws, the National Trust raised a red flag. The Trust’s endangered list made regional headlines.

If Duell was correct, that false perception was shattered in 2003-2004 after MeadWestvaco Corporation, owner of vast parcels of timberland across South Carolina and the Lowcountry, sold the 4,500-acre Poplar Grove tract (which is wedged between Ashley River Road and Highway 17) to a real estate development company based in Augusta, Georgia. Although Poplar Grove is situated in southwestern Dorchester County along County Line Road (between Charleston and Dorchester counties), the property backs up to the Ashley River corridor. Many locals assumed the timber company would hold these lands indefinitely, and that they were therefore immune to the threat of development.

Today, the marketing website for Poplar Grove states, “Our vision is to take this natural wonderland, these 6,000 acres of marshland, woods, canals, ponds, open waterways, nature trails, along with the thousands of flowers, plants, trees, birds, fish and animals that live here, and respect every leaf, every droplet of water, and every living, breathing thing.” In 2003, however, the developers were not proposing such a righteously pastoral vision. Their initial plan for Poplar Grove was to build 5,000 housing units on 4,500 acres, a plan they attempted to fast track through zoning approvals in Dorchester County. That plan that would have radically transformed this very rural community – a community that the Post & Courier estimated was home to at most 500 residents – into a busy suburb,placing increased traffic demands on County Line Road, and Highways 17 and 165. And perhaps most alarmingly, Poplar Grove’s proposed high-density development would have pushed suburban sprawl ever closer to the doorstep of the Lowcountry’s conservation gem – the ACE Basin to the south.

Given the Lowcountry’s affinity for and appreciation of history and wildlife, it was not difficult to make the public aware of the region’s significance. In fact, an understanding of the why and the need to protect these lands was already somewhat embedded in local culture. The how to protect it was less clear, and thus advancing collaboration within the conservation community on projects with shared goals became a critical component of the Ashley River District whole place preservation toolkit.

The groundwork for this collaboration grew out of the Ashley River Conservation Coalition (ARCC), which was established to follow up on issues and concerns raised following the 1996 public forum, Envisioning a Future for the Ashley River Corridor: Questions, Strategies, Solutions. This forum pulled together a broad array of non-profit and public entitles who were stakeholders in the region, and gave them an opportunity to explore issues and dialogue about challenges and their shared vision for the future of the Ashley River Corridor. The Ashley River Conservation Coalition included representatives from Drayton Hall, Historic Charleston Foundation, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, Middleton Place Foundation, S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and Westvaco Corporation. 

The collaborative groundwork laid by this coalition would prove invaluable during the fight to protect Poplar Grove. As mentioned, the developers intended to build up to 5,000 residential units on the rural tract in southwestern Dorchester County, which readily approved the zoning permits to allow 3,500 units (lower density, but still massive in the scale of this rural area). The City of Charleston attempted a last minute annexation of Poplar Grove, thereby placing it under Charleston’s more stringent development zoning laws; however the annexation was thwarted by one hold-out property owner.

With Poplar Grove’s zoning approval in hand and failure of the City of Charleston’s last-ditch annexation attempt, the conservation outlook was dire. “Such incredible effort had gone into this and so many people were committed to the preservation of this historic area – the whole conservation community, among others, the entire Delmars community, the Town of Hollywood, the City of Charleston, and all of the Ashley River plantation owners were on board and working together,” said Megan Desrosiers of the Coastal Conservation League. Yet there were essentially no remaining impediments to development. Edwin Cooper of Ducks Unlimited suggested that it was time to broker a deal. 

Cooper and his colleague and fellow land conservation advocate Charles Lane went to the developers and suggested an alternative to the costly lawsuits and rampant community ill-will they would surely face if they pursued such an intensive development in order to recoup their $12 million investment. They offered the developer Mills a deal: $10 million in exchange for a conservation easement on 3,000 acres of the Poplar Grove tract. Mills would retain development rights for a scaled-back 400 homes on 1,000 acres and sell the remaining property in tracts of 100 acres or larger. Eventually, after much negotiation, Mills accepted.

“Of course, we didn’t have $10 million,” Cooper recalls, “but we knew an agreement would take a lot of money, and we were pretty sure we could get it done for that amount.” This is where the coalition base and history of collaboration takes the spotlight. 

The “we” that Cooper spoke for included some of the Lowcountry’s most respected and savvy conservationists: Charles Lane, Coy Johnston,  Michael Prevost of The Nature Conservancy and others. Lane and Johnston were the masterminds behind protecting the ACE Basin, and they weren’t about to see that investment and victory threatened by Poplar Grove. This core group along with the Coastal Conservation League director Dana Beach immediately went to work identifying partners and possible funding sources, meeting with neighboring landowners and getting commitments lined up. They requested a $10 million loan guarantee from the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, contingent on conservation easement agreements totaling an additional 10,000 acres from surrounding property owners, including Uxbridge, Millbrook and Middleton Plantations—which form the core of the Ashley River plantation district. 

This coalition of foundations and conservation-related groups ultimately raised a total of $14 million from a variety of foundations and groups, including $2.2 million from the South Carolina Conservation Bank. The Conservation Bank had been created in 2002 by the General Assembly as a public funding source for land conservation via purchase of easements and direct land purchase. With the vital funding in hand, the coalition was able to purchase conservation easements at Poplar Grove and Middleton Place and secure voluntary easement donations from the private owners of Uxbridge and Millbrook Plantations.

Another critical piece in saving Poplar Grove was building successful relationships with property owners and encouraging grassroots campaigns to attract broad-based support. Property owners such as Michael Cordray with the Poplar Grove campaign and Debbie Henson with the Watson Hill fight proved invaluable in cultivating community support and organizing opposition to the proposed developments.

Michael Cordray’s family has been raising cattle and tending the land of Cordray Farms along County Line Road for more than a century. His rural roots are deep, and his love of the land is legendary among Lowcountry hunters. Cordray and his son Kenneth are the local go-to guys for deer dressing, venison processing and taxidermy. For a gentle guy, Cordray can wield a fierce butcher knife, and he was determined to help butcher the plans for Poplar Grove. 

“We’re not giving up, not at all,” Cordray said time and again during what would become a prolonged battle to curtail Poplar Grove’s proposed development. Cordray helped rally a groundswell of opposition among his rural neighbors, inviting all those interested to an initial community informational meeting (December 2004) at a local church. The developer would attend, as would select Dorchester County Council and Charleston City Council members and representatives from the Coastal Conservation League.

From this meeting and others like it, the Coastal Conservation League gathered lists of residents’ names and then called, emailed, and developed relationships with as many people as possible. Cordray posted a petition at his venison processing plant and held follow-up meetings at his home. Summerville resident Lucyanne Cathcart felt the proposed development was a travesty and hosted weekly luncheons with one or two Dorchester County Council members and various citizens. Cordray, Cathcart and a growing cadre of Poplar Grove opponents launched an aggressive grassroots anti-development campaign. They plastered the surrounding region with “Not Poplar” signs and bumper stickers that, in fact, proved very popular; soon they were on tractors and bulldozers on the developer’s site, on billboards and utility poles everywhere. It came down to going door-to-door to collect citizens’ signatures on annexation petitions. Establishing relationships among citizen stakeholders and building a grassroots base that can exert public pressure was, in this instance, more than a preservation tool, it was a game-changer. 

The far-reaching collaborative efforts among groups and citizens to protect Poplar Grove and ultimately the Ashley River Corridor is to this day considered one of the more remarkable examples of the power of creative coalition-building for whole place preservation in the nation. Years later, when the fight to protect the Watson Hill tract became, in essence, an annexation war between three different municipalities, the primary preservation tactics were similar. 

Even before the furor over Poplar Grove had ended, a new crisis emerged with the sale of another large tract of land by timber company MeadWestvaco (MWV). The sale of the 6,600 acre Watson Hill Tract in 2004 ignited an even greater public firestorm as plans soon emerged for a massive residential development surrounding a hotel and golf course. This development proposal would overwhelm county infrastructure and its location adjacent to the historic Ashley River Road meant that the traffic from the proposed 5,000 houses would dump out onto the two lane scenic highway near Middleton Place.

Additionally, a preliminary cultural resources survey of the tract identified 35 important sites including those associated with colonial-era inland rice cultivation, various plantation complexes, Native American sites, and evidence of various industries that contributed to the history of the area including phosphate mining, timber harvesting and recreational hunting. In February 2005, Dorchester County Planning Department recommended against approval of the development plans and hundreds of citizens and conservation and historic groups opposing the plans packed council chambers at the numerous public hearings that followed on the matter that spring. These groups and individuals had learned from the Poplar Grove battle the importance of getting ahead of an issue and they came out in force to not only oppose this development but to urge Dorchester County council to pass a preservation and conservation overlay for the part of the historic Ashley River Corridor within the county limits. Historic Charleston Foundation was concurrently working toward an expansion of the Ashley River Historic District.

Later in 2005 residents and opposition groups learned that in response to dwindling support for the project in Dorchester County, the developers were seeking annexation by the city of North Charleston as an end-run around the more restrictive zoning they would likely face within the county. The Dorchester County Council had in fact been considering and would later pass in 2007 a conservation overlay zoning to protect the historic Ashley River Corridor. In response to the potential annexation by North Charleston, local residents approached the Town of Summerville to annex the property. At one point in time during the Watson Hill episode, the City of Charleston, the City of North Charleston and the Town of Summerville were embroiled in a three-way tug of war over annexation rights, with the fate of protecting this significant rural region hanging in the balance. A series of lawsuits brought by conservation groups and landowners ensued and played out over the next several years.

The legal battle over annexation wasn’t resolved until the spring of 2011. By then, North Charleston’s annexation claim had been upheld, but most importantly, the fight over intensive residential development had been settled to most everyone’s satisfaction. Much of this was due to the fact that the major economic recession of 2008 had rendered the Watson Hill development proposal financially infeasible. In 2009, at the urging of preservation groups, MWV announced it would re-purchase the Watson Hill tract, immediately signaling that they were committed to a more conservation-focused development that was consistent with Dorchester County’s zoning overlay. This was seen as a major victory for preservation and conservation groups and the community at large because MWV’s forward-thinking vision set an important precedent for their much larger East Edisto Project, which encompasses 72,000 contiguous acres located to the south and west of Watson Hill.

Because local municipalities ultimately govern zoning regulations, the importance of political support is paramount in whole place preservation efforts, which was indeed the case with the Ashley River Corridor and the fights at Poplar Grove and Watson Hill. Five different jurisdictions had stakes in this relatively small area of the region: Charleston County, City of Charleston, City of North Charleston, Dorchester County, and the Town of Summerville. The ability to cultivate political clout and educate public officials about the significance of this area proved critical to the successful outcome of this land battle. In the end, several of the citizens who became involved in the Watson Hill and Poplar Grove land protection fights ended up running for political office, thus the importance of political support and engagement can become both a grassroots and grass-tops endeavor.

While the fights to protect Poplar Grove and Watson Hill were reactive to specific land deals and development threats, they certainly offer lessons learned for the preservation and conservation community to be proactive.

By winning the fight to reduce the scale and impact of Poplar Grove from a proposed 3,500-unit development to a 450-unit development, with more than half of the 4,500 acre tract held in conservation easement, and by curtailing annexation and development efforts at Watson Hill until the developer ultimately sold the land back to MWV, the Ashley River Corridor remains one of the moss-draped protected gems of the Lowcountry. As a result of these hard-fought and strategic battles, the public is more informed about smart growth and the threat of sprawl, more aware of tools such as zoning restrictions and overlay districts, more engaged and invested in an ethic of land protection, and more informed about the critical importance of land use patterns and infrastructure investment as setting the stage for future development and protection. Serving as a successful case study for whole place preservation, these efforts in the Ashley River Corridor bode well for the future of the Lowcountry and beyond.

This case study was compiled by Stephanie Hunt, Winslow Hastie and Katherine Pemberton, March 2014.

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Poplar Grove and Watson Hill: A Case Study In Coalition Building and Land Conservation

Two converging development threats in the Ashley River Corridor beginning in 2003 catalyzed a major conservation effort led by the Coastal Conservation League, Ducks Unlimited, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and others…