From The Blog

Envisioning Education And Preservation

John Burrus, new board chair of the Kiawah Island Natural Habitat Conservancy, considers himself “not a visionary,” but he has a vision, one which is shared by most people who live and vacation
on Kiawah. “I take the dog out for a walk every morning to listen to the birds and watch the surf. I’m consumed by it,” he says. “I became involved with the conservancy because I wanted to help preserve the island’s beauty and natural environment.

I’m not alone in that. All the conservancy chairs have had the same goal, as do the other members of the board. In a KICA survey a few years ago, the beach was the primary draw for people, but the natural environment was second.”

The mission of the conservancy is to promote conservation of natural habitat on Kiawah. The primary functions of the board are to oversee research on the island to learn what kinds of habitat need to be preserved, determine how to affect preservation and raise the funds to do it. John began grooming for the chairmanship two years ago when he became conservancy vice chair, but from a 34-year law career in Lexington, Kentucky, he also brought with him considerable expertise and experience in working with non-profits, as well as a love of nature.

“I have always enjoyed the outdoors and been interested in the land,” he explains. “In Lexington, we had a ‘farmette’ where we boarded a few horses. Here my favorite part of the day is that 45 minutes to an hour I spend walking on the beach, or sometimes through the neighborhoods.” He once was a daily noontime runner, part of a group called the Clydesdales (“because to be part of the group, you had to have weighed over 200 pounds at some time in your life”) and later a competitor in road races. When running and aging collided, he began power walking about five miles a day.

John began his law career as a part-time prosecutor and then served as a judge for four years, until the financial responsibilities of raising a family drew him into full-time private practice. When his children were small, the family vacationed on Hilton Head, but by the early 1980s it had become too built up and busy for them, and they decided to try Kiawah. “On our first visit, there wasn’t much here, just one Gary Player golf course, the Straw Market and a lush island paradise,” he recalls. He lauds Kiawah development: “The developer has been a very good steward for this island, much attuned to its natural beauty.”

In 2000, with retirement on the horizon, John and his wife bought a lot and began building a home that would accommodate their family and the next generation. “We didn’t realize that they would all come down here and stay. All three live in the Charleston area, with their own homes—and now we have too much space.”

As conservancy chair, much of John’s time is spent in meetings. The full conservancy board of 33 trustees, about 75 percent full-time residents, meets quarterly, and the executive committee—the officers and committee chairs—meets monthly. He tries to attend as many meetings of the half dozen standing committees as possible. “I have the benefit of a very good staff, three full-time and two part-time people, who handle the bulk of the administrative tasks. I give what guidance and support I can to our standing committees.”

John has two major goals for his term as chair: education and increasing the number of protective easements. For the first, he wants to continue an aggressive effort to educate Kiawah property
owners on the need for habitat preservation. “We spent from 1968- 1995 destroying habitat and now we need to remediate that. We are losing our understory, which is what attracts birds. Birds don’t live in the tree canopy, as most people think—they live in the understory from 3-10 feet off the ground. As you drive the island, you can see homes more than 15-20 years old where the habitat has died and not been replaced or has been landscaped away. When the overstory becomes too thick, the understory dies from lack of sunlight. I want to educate the island about the need to refurbish the understory—if you pull out a shrub, put another in, or better, put two in, rather than just covering the bare area with pine straw. The 15-20 Sweetgrass Awards we give each year are intended to encourage that.” (For more information on the Sweetgrass Awards, please visit www.sweetgrassaward.org.) The conservancy is working with the Architectural Review Board to change some practices, such as the clearing of lots when new houses are built. Common practice is to totally clear the lot and then later landscape it, rather than disturbing as little understory as possible. (For related information, please see the article Help Ensure a Healthy Future for Kiawah Island on page 8.)

Preservation requires land, which the conservancy has acquired through fee simple purchases, gifts, partitional gifts, bargain sales, reduced rates and preservation easements. The latter is attractive to some donors because the land remains the property of the donor and the donor retains certain rights to it. The owner must preserve the land in perpetuity, but can use it for purposes that do not change it. The conservancy stewards the land, inspecting it periodically. John’s second goal is to continue acquiring preservation easements, especially from the major island entities—the community association, town, developer and resort, all of which he says own ample property they will never use that could be put under an easement that would protect it forever. He explains, “For example, I’m concerned about ‘trash lots’ that are not considered suitable for development now, but in 10 or 20 years when the island is fully built out, a different set of people who manage the various entities might decide to develop them after all.

We are seeking certain easements now from KICA, and they would retain the right, for instance, to run a power line through the land. Easements are the ideal way to protect habitat, since we don’t have much money to purchase property.” Little Bear Island is the largest example of a preservation easement on Kiawah. The term of John’s conservancy board chairmanship is two years, which
will complete his second of the two permitted consecutive terms on the board. But he will not have to retire from board work at the end of his second term; he can look forward to continuing on the board in an ex-officio position.

The conservancy is not his only community activity. With several other Kiawah residents, he is working on the restoration of the old Hebron Presbyterian Church on Bohicket Road, which was built out of the wreckage of a ship and had been leaning precipitously. The group raised $250,000 for the restoration and has been straightening the building, removing lead paint, repairing windows and painting.

He is also on the board of the Charleston Breast Center. “My mother-in-law died of breast cancer and several friends are breast cancer survivors. I want to work to help all patients, with or without insurance.” Furthermore, he is soon to become a mentor at the Citadel. Besides his community activities, John plays golf about twice a week (“when a committee meeting doesn’t conflict”) and has a busy schedule of island social activities and dinners with friends—“keeping in mind,” he cautions, “that 9 p.m. is Kiawah midnight!” And he still finds time to read every day. “I can’t do it at night; I would fall asleep. I am up early and read every morning for about 90 minutes. When I was working I used to go to the office at 6:30 or 7 every morning. I was alert and it was quiet, and by the time my secretary arrived I had done half a day’s work.”

John thinks that involvement in the community and being active is important, in part as a way to make new connections and new friends, and to fill the hole from the 35 years of friends and relationships that he left behind in Lexington. “I’m not unique. Everyone here is interested in making friends and in what goes on around here.”