Supporting the Local Economy By Protecting Biodiversity

In October 1995, local elected officials initiated a regional partnership that brought together more than 75 residents and 40 representatives from local government, businesses, and nonprofit organizations to discuss their vision for the future of the area. The group emphasized the need to preserve open space and scenery, wildlife, and the quiet, close-knit characteristics of the community. The result is the Cooper River Corridor Advisory Commission and a comprehensive plan to "manage development in order to maintain the rural character, natural beauty and environmental integrity of the area."

The Cooper River corridor in coastal South Carolina has been a tremendous source of biological diversity and economic activity along the Atlantic Coast for thousands of years, and today it possesses a unique blend of significant natural, cultural, and economic resources. With dozens of historic and prehistoric sites, the area boasts three National Historic Landmarks and 13 sites on the National Register of Historic Places. The area in and around the Cooper River provides habitat for hundreds of plants and animals, including at least 40 rare, threatened, and endangered species. Nearly 50,000 acres, one-sixth of the corridor's four watersheds, are wetlands. At the same time, the river supplies freshwater and port facilities to numerous major industrial sites.

Widespread ecological destruction caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, increasing development pressures, and declines in populations of native plant and wildlife species along the river have underscored the need for a unified effort to protect the area's resources. In particular, the Charleston area's rapidly growing economy and population are beginning to affect a region of the Cooper River in Berkeley County that was previously relatively undeveloped. Berkeley County's 1990 population is expected to nearly double by the year 2010, prompting an estimated need for more than 44,000 new housing units. Industrial development is also booming in the county, including expansion of existing industrial sites and the creation of new ones.

The Cooper River Corridor Project, founded in 1995, is a partnership of government agencies, corporations, nonprofit organizations, and citizens that works to enhance wildlife habitat and achieve sustainable development along the Cooper River. The project is directed by a local advisory commission and coordinated by a local office of the Wildlife Habitat Council, an international nonprofit organization.

Involving the Community

In fall 1995, the Cooper River Corridor Project initiated a community-based planning process to develop a common vision and recommendations for the protection and enhancement of the river's natural, cultural, and economic resources. More than 40 organizations and 75 residents of communities along the Cooper River corridor participated initially. Over 200 individuals eventually became involved in the project, attending meetings, providing data, or offering support during the 14-month planning process.

The result is the Community-Based Planning Initiative, a blueprint for the future of the area. Participants agreed on a vision of commercial, industrial, and residential development that will be compatible with the area's natural and cultural heritage. The goal is to preserve historic and natural resources for future generations; to ensure greater access to parks, recreation areas, and other public amenities; and to increase opportunities and improve quality of life through community-based education and well-managed economic development.

Berkeley County Supervisors and Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr., have been major supporters of the project and were integral to the creation of the Cooper River Advisory Commission, which includes appointed local government representatives. At the beginning of the initiative, their leadership provided enormous encouragement to the project steering committee to formalize itself as the Cooper River Advisory Commission. The Charleston City Council passed a resolution officially recognizing the advisory commission. Throughout the process, numerous government agencies and nonprofit organizations have been closely involved in the project.

Creating a Blueprint for the Future

The Community-Based Planning Initiative Report summarizes the planning process, describes the river's resources, and outlines the goals and recommendations that were developed by the project's three working groups. Together, the three working groups (Land Use Planning, Natural and Historical Conservation, and Community Development) finalized more than 110 recommendations to achieve the community's vision.

With regard to land use planning, the advisory commission has recommended that the county and city update their land use plans to incorporate regulations that will safeguard the rural character, natural beauty, and environmental integrity of the area. The commission also recommended a special zoning (overlay) district within the Cooper River corridor boundary to facilitate implementation of regulations. Priority land use ordinances that should be established include landscape buffers along roadsides; zoning that clusters developments and provides open space preserves; and a review process for site design, including architecture and landscaping.

The Community Development working group focused on ways to provide meaningful and rewarding employment for people in the community and ways to build community integrity. The report suggests more concrete ways for residents, landowners, corporations, and government agencies to establish better relationships, closer communication, and sustained community involvement in decision making.

Finally, the Natural and Historical Conservation working group recommended four tools to be used by the project and other conservation organizations: education, research, protection, and policy. The group sees five major priorities in this area:

Educating community members and decision-makers about the value of open space and ways to protect it.

Disseminating information on best-management practices and habitat management to land owners along the Cooper River.

Identifying areas of special significance that should be protected.

Establishing conservation easements on key properties along the river.

Working with local governments to develop programs that protect open space, critical habitat, historic structures, and the rural character of the area.

The Community-Based Planning Initiative report is not the end of the process. While much has been accomplished, the true measure of success will depend on the implementation of the report's recommendations through continued community leadership, wise planning, and cooperative action. Working in cooperation with local governments, community leaders, and conservation organizations, the Cooper River Corridor Advisory Commission has taken the lead to begin implementing the project. Currently, both the City of Charleston and Berkeley County are considering the project's recommendations that require local government action. Although neither government entity has promised to implement the project's recommendations fully, officials intend to incorporate suggestions into many of their future land use plans, zoning regulations, and economic development initiatives. To this end, city and county officials have been in close communication and are committed to establishing compatible policies and programs for the Cooper River Corridor Project. For more information, contact:

For further information, contact:

Joseph P. Riley, Jr.
Mayor of Charleston

Al Kennedy
Berkeley County Public Information Officer

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The United States Conference of Mayors

J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
1620 Eye Street, NW, Washington, DC 20006
Telephone (202) 293-7330, FAX (202) 293-2352

Copyright 1998, US Conference of Mayors, All rights reserved.