He’s making a list and checking it twice: November’s news included a report that Gov. McMaster has requested an investigation into the operations of the South Carolina Conservation Bank. Although we are all for the bright, disinfecting rays of sunshine pouring onto the spending of any public money, we worry that this is less about protecting citizens interests and more about dismantling the long-embattled initiative.

Since its start 15 years ago, the Conservation Bank has worked to ensure the Palmetto State’s beautiful places remain beautiful. Through a small fee on real estate transfers, it has turned $150 million dollars into a lasting protection for hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands, woodlands, family farms, parks and historic sites. For the low, one-time price of about $525 an acre, landowners can receive a just recompense for placing easements on their land and all citizens of South Carolina — present and future — can share in the benefits.

It should be one of the least controversial things the state does; yet, from day one, the Conservation Bank has had a target painted on it in the form of a sunset clause on its authorizing legislation. Just this year, Columbia pols tried to strip it of funding and drain millions from its bank account via a budgetary maneuver. Thankfully, Gov. McMaster vetoed the attempt to torpedo the bank.

But now an audit looms. It stems from a February report by the Legislative Audit Council that delivered a shocking finding: The SCCB did not have evidence that all the land it has funded was in threat of development. Further, not all funded land has free and unencumbered public access.

Underwhelming charges, to say the least. Anyone who’s paid any attention to the work of the bank knows both of these conditions are the case. They are a feature, not a bug:  Although public land use is fantastic (and more than 75 percent of SCCB conserved lands offer at least limited public use), it is not practicable for all properties. The mission of the Conservation Bank isn’t to build parks; it is to protect land. As any thinking person can recognize, public use and public benefit are two very separate things.

As for the “threat of development” … can anyone say, with a straight face, that there’s one solid acre of this state that some developer wouldn’t be happy to pave? Trying to impose a standard on the bank that it must only protect “development-threatened land” is to force it to always fight losing battles in old wars. Who knows just where time and the market will lead new growth?

Population growth of once-small towns across the Palmetto State is now routinely more than ten percent. Think of places like Bluffton, Fort Mill, or Greer — how long ago were they sleepy little towns? No longer. Then look at the Lowcountry around us – Mt. Pleasant stretching past Highway 41, Johns Island’s rapid suburbanization, the specter of growth in the East Edisto area. How long ago did such development seem unfathomable?

South Carolina is a growing state; Charleston is a growing area. This should be no surprise. It is a beautiful place, with friendly people, favorable attitudes to business and — above all — a high quality of life. We would be fools to think so highly of the Palmetto State and then sincerely wish to “lock its doors” to all growth. But to put short-term profits over long-term protections, as the bank’s enemies wish to do, is to risk losing everything.

Condo buildings make for poor shorebird nests; bear and bobcat and deer don’t find their home in city parks; family farms are not for paving over, but for producing our food. Sensible folks across all social, political and economic conditions understand this and largely agree. So we ask you to join us in being vigilant; see through this “audit”; then call or write your state legislators and remind them that the S.C. Conservation Bank is important to you. The only things that can talk louder than developer’s dollars are the voices of concerned citizens.

 

 

Mercury newspapers can be found at the following locations:

Burbage's

Buxton Books

Caviar & Bananas

The Meeting Street Inn (Rack)

Clair's Service Station, Folly Rd. (Rack)

Harris Teeter, Houston-Northcutt Blvd. (Rack)

Mt. Pleasant Library, Mathis Ferry Rd. (Rack)

Pitt St. Pharmacy

The Square Onion, I'On (Rack)