Originally created 05/28/03

Growth hits farmland



AIKEN - Along both sides of Whiskey Road as it leaves the southside of town are signs advertising the sale of undeveloped commercial property.

New restaurants or stores on the land could mean big dollars in business fees and sales tax revenue for local government.

But it would also mean the additional financial burden of providing more water, sewer, police and emergency medical services to handle this growth - spending that could be avoided if the land was preserved for farming, said Gerry Cohn, the Southeast regional director for the American Farmland Trust.

Mr. Cohn, whose organization has persuaded owners of more than 1 million acres nationwide to put their land into conservation trusts during the past 20 years, was talking Tuesday to Aiken County property owners about locking up their land from development.

"There's a myth that the public holds that if we bring in more tax base that it will improve our fiscal picture," he said.

Earlier this month, Mr. Cohn visited the Aiken County Council, which is in the middle of preparing a cash-starved budget for next year.

Although saving money is an attractive idea in the middle of South Carolina's budget crisis, at least one council member was drawn to the idea of saving pastures and cropland.

"I have a problem with a lot of these big subdivisions going in and just taking over a nice farm," said Councilwoman Kathy Rawls, whose district is vastly rural and used for farming. "It just seems a shame. Although we need jobs and we could use some small industry, I still want to preserve our farming atmosphere."

At the same time, the county council is working with the Aiken City Council to build a connector road between Silver Bluff and Whiskey roads that could roll through prized farm land and provide a catalyst for more development.

A visit by Mr. Cohn in March coincided with discussions about the route, which officials say is needed to alleviate traffic along Whiskey Road. The proposal has met stiff opposition from residents south of the city, who say they enjoy the rural environment.

More than 100 people attended the March event where Mr. Cohn spoke. He was invited to the area by Iris Freeman, who owns a horse farm near one of the proposed connector routes and sits on American Farmland Trust's national board.

The proposed connector road is years from being built. Meanwhile, residents off Chukker Creek Road whose homes lie in the path of one potential route said they would entrust their land if it would stop the road.

"They're developing what used to be farmland," said Bill Lynn, who has owned a 4-acre horse paddock off Chukker Creek Road for about 30 years. "But then, that's progress. I don't know how you stop it."

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803)279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.