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Goat Island Residents Not Sheepish About Protecting Their Land From Development

Unique partnership keeps condos off a pristine South Carolina island.

Viewed from the posh stucco homes on the shoreline northeast of Charleston, S.C., Goat Island doesn't look like much - a mere a tangle of treetops and marsh grass.

Close up, however, it becomes an almost magical place of giant fern forests and beckoning oak groves. Rare wood storks fly overhead. Its only "road" is a winding footpath covered over in places with head-high weeds.

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It even has a strange, haunting history: A man brought his mentally ailing wife to the island and together they raised goats, never venturing from their aboriginal world.

But if Goat Island has a flaw, it would be its place in the world. Only a three-mile boat ride separates the island from civilization.

Following hurricane Hugo in 1989, the Charleston area experienced a growth spurt that threatened to include the isle. The five families who live here year-round (plus 60 other vacation residents) worried that the backside of their island would be purchased and condominiums would rise where towering palms now stand.

"There were all kinds of things that could have been done with the property," says Joe Tucker, a longtime vacation homeowner. "But it's the seclusion, that's what interested me."

To save their slice of paradise, Goat Islanders turned to a rare variation on an increasingly popular conservation plan: easements.

A conservation easement is an agreement usually signed by a land owner with a municipality or a nonprofit land-trust organization, in which the owner promises not to develop specified property. The land must have some kind of scenic or environmental benefit to the community. In exchange, the land owner receives a tax break.

The twist in Goat Island's case is that there will be some 60 land owners - not one - who've promised to keep their piece of land in the same, natural state it was when they bought it. The plan specifies that everyone who owns a home or piece of property on the south side of the island is entitled to the adjacent property on the uninhabited north side. Owners pay an average of $350 for each lot - basically to cover the costs of surveying the property.

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Goat Island residents have embraced the plan - all but three lots have been sold - since it was hatched three years ago by Mr. Tucker, an architect. In exchange for permission to buy a piece of land on the island for a new vacation home, Tucker set up the easement plan.

Land conservationists say the Goat Island arrangement is a sign of the times. To battle unchecked sprawl, communities from Portland, Ore., to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., are taking similar steps to preserve their open spaces.

"There are two key forces pushing this," says Andy Zepp at the Land Trust Alliance in Washington, D.C. "The continued development around the country ... and at the same time a growing awareness of conservation easements as a useful tool."

The early conservationists - such as the wealthy who wanted to preserve a family estate and, more recently, the farmer signing on to an easement to cut taxes on his farmland - are now being joined by neighborhood and community groups that form to arrange easements or buy up green spaces, experts say.

Other examples include neighbors in Great Falls, Md., who are crusading to keep an old family farm from being sold to developers. The Village of Plainsfield, Ill., south of Chicago, formed a fund-raising group to help their county buy land for nature trails instead of condominiums.

The Tucker family admits that selfishness on their part is at least partly what motivated them to preserve the island. But they also insist a greater good is being served. "There are not many more places like this anymore, that haven't been all built up," says Sally Tucker, Joe's wife. "This is a place for dreaming. It's like our little paradise."

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