Working to Protect the Ashley River Region, SC

South Carolina

Project Summary

In July 2004, a proposed mega-development named Watson Hill threatened to overwhelm the Ashley River Region with suburban sprawl. Encompassing 10 square miles, or 6,600 acres, the land had been sold by timber company MeadWestvaco to an out-of-state developer who proposed to build 5,000 homes, a hotel, golf course, and a commercial center, which would have added 50,000 cars per day to the already overtaxed two-lane Ashley River Road, a National Scenic Byway. To combat this threat, preservation and conservation organizations forged alliances along with residents and concerned citizens and successfully thwarted the development.

Regional Setting

On the National Trust's 11 Most Endangered Places list since 1995, the Ashley River Region is a 13-mile corridor northwest of Charleston that is bound by the Ashley River, a State Scenic River, and Ashley River Road, which constitutes a National Register District. Situated along the Ashley River amidst this still-forested landscape are Drayton Hall, established as a plantation circa 1738 and now a National Historic Landmark and a historic site of the National Trust; Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark; and the 17th century Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Archaeological sites trace the nation's history from Native American habitation to 18th-century African-American settlements to Civil War fortifications. The region is also part of a growing metropolitan region, and therein lies the challenge.

Addressing a Major Threat with Action and Planning

For nearly two decades, preservation and conservation organizations have been engaged in regional preservation, working alone as well as with allies as threats or opportunities would arise. In 2004, a new, potentially catastrophic threat emerged called Watson Hill, a 6600-acre tract of timberlands located in Dorchester County, South Carolina, just north of Charleston County. Historically rural, Dorchester had become one of the fastest growing counties in the state and was deeply split over issues of suburban growth and private property rights.

The owner, timber company MeadWestvaco, sold Watson Hill to out-of-state developers who proposed a mega-development consisting of 5000 homes, a hotel, golf courses, a commercial center, and more. The plan would have required construction of a four-lane expressway paralleling the historic Ashley River Road, triggering similar suburban sprawl across the still-forested landscape, and adding an additional 50,000 cars onto the already overtaxed two-lane roadway.

To challenge this proposal, Drayton Hall allied with other programs of the National Trust and engaged the community by partnering with preservation and conservation organizations including Middleton Place Foundation, the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Summerville Preservation Society, the Coastal Conservation League, and the Ashley Scenic River Advisory Council, as well as neighborhood associations, individual residents, local political leaders, and taxpayer associations. They involved the community at-large through print and broadcast media, public hearings, and rallies. Together, the Coastal Conservation League and Drayton Hall hired economists from the University of South Carolina to produce an economic assessment showing that the development would raise taxes on everyone in the county. Beginning in 2004, community partners and preservation and conservation organizations helped to pass a county ordinance that would limit density on the site to 825 units for the 3300 acres of available uplands (the rest being wetlands). Their efforts met with success in May 2007. In 2005, they also allied with residents to thwart the attempt by the developers to have Watson Hill annexed from Dorchester County into the city of North Charleston, which had promised to approve the mega-development.

Preservation, Conservation, and Community Interests Converge

For the first time on the state level, one proposed development endangered several nationally recognized historic sites and some of the most important wildlife habitat areas in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Once again, this pushed the preservationists and conservationists out of their traditional partnerships and onto new ground, proving to each group the necessity of the other. Neighborhood associations that had little contact with their historic-site neighbors now joined forces, and a true grassroots campaign was born out of a shared concern. Taxpayer associations and some local government officials jumped on the bandwagon as well, seeing that their interests were also at stake.

A series of significant accomplishments resulted from these actions, including lengthy court cases and the hard-won density ordinance. The delays that were caused proved expensive for the owners, and in January of 2009 the Watson Hill investors went into foreclosure on the property. Drayton Hall and its partners wasted no time in pressing MeadWestvaco to re-purchase Watson Hill for conservation-minded development. Victory was finally realized with the June 2009 announcement that MeadWestvaco would, in fact, re-purchase Watson Hill and fold it into East Edisto, their larger conservation-minded, land-development project.

Lessons Learned

  • Be prepared to act quickly. Because Drayton Hall's strategic plan includes preservation of the region, it was able to respond immediately to the Watson Hill threat. Its decades-long involvement with preservation and conservation issues, and its affiliation with the National Trust, helped Drayton Hall successfully articulate the campaign vision, mission, and goals in order to forge common bonds among stakeholders, guide the disparate groups, anticipate obstacles, and mobilize accordingly.
  • Communicate real-world impact and its relevance to individual stakeholders. For example, unmanaged growth of Dorchester County caused the problems of suburban sprawl to become no longer an abstraction but a reality. Traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, decline in quality of life, and the need for more tax dollars resulting from additional mega-development would have an enormous personal impact on the community. Tools such as computer simulation and economic modeling provide clarity in relation to these threats and help to galvanize support for strong planning ordinances and other methods for managing growth. Through monitoring of ongoing local and regional developments, tools like these should, ideally, be utilized to build public awareness before a crisis has a chance to develop.
  • It is possible to change public perception. A common misconception about preservationists is that they are focused solely on the past; this changed as the community saw Drayton Hall negotiating decisions about what the future of the entire region would be for all of its residents. A greater number of stakeholders than ever before now view Drayton Hall within the larger context of their community and the region, not separate and apart from it. 
  • Environmental concerns and preservation concerns are not mutually exclusive; in fact, in many cases, they are inseparable. The Watson Hill campaign showed preservationists that they had a much larger constituency than was once thought.
  • Preserving place, whether in rural or urban settings, is critical to the survival of heritage areas and historic sites. The sights and sounds that visitors to the region encounter on their approach, as well as the quality of the on-site visit, shape the complete visitor experience. Therefore, it is vital to reach out to the community in order to connect the past with the present.
  • Because of the site's proximity to the proposed development, Drayton Hall took a leadership role, but also partnered with an array of allies, including churches, neighborhood associations, conservation groups, large landowners, government officials, and taxpayer organizations. As campaigns evolve and developing issues call for specific competencies, leaders must adjust their role at various points in the process and be willing to follow and support the lead of other partners.
  • Although the Watson Hill campaign drained staff time and financial resources from Drayton Hall, the enduring value is clear—first and foremost in preventing a catastrophic challenge to the region and secondly in making historic preservation more relevant to the community at large. Also, Drayton Hall directly benefitted from its enhanced public profile and the support of new audiences.
  • Politics count. Despite having "right" on your side, if you don't have the votes on the decision-making council, you lose.  To win political support requires being engaged in the community for the long term, educating the public about alternatives to suburban sprawl and costs of unmanaged growth, and helping, within the parameters of a non-profit preservation organization, to build and sustain a constituency for historic preservation. 

For more information contact:

Conservation Organizations

1000 Assembly Street
Columbia, SC 29205
Phone: 803-734-9096

Coastal Conservation League
Dana Beach, Executive Director
Phone: 843-723-8035

Preservation Organizations

Drayton Hall
Dr. George W. McDaniel, Executive Director
Phone: 843-769-2600

Historic Charleston Foundation
Katherine Robinson, Executive Director
Phone: 843-723-1623

Middleton Place Foundation
Charles Duell, President
Phone: (843) 556-6020

Summerville Preservation Society
Heyward Hutson, President