EXCLUSIVE | Controversial plan

University of South Carolina foundation looks to sell prime coastal land

sfretwell@thestate.comSeptember 21, 2013 

A University of South Carolina foundation wants to sell about 1,200 acres of prime coastal property, rather than leave the forested land undeveloped for scientific research as envisioned when it bought the tract in the 1990s.

Conservation groups are preparing to fight the sale of the Prince George tract in Georgetown County, saying the USC Development Foundation is reneging on agreements to preserve the wetlands-studded property.

They say legally binding documents were intended to limit development on the land. But those conservation agreements can be voided, and a foundation official conceded last week his group is interested in doing so.

Russ Meekins, executive director of foundations at USC, said the development foundation is doing the right thing by pursuing a buyer for the property. His organization needs the revenue to help the university at a time of dwindling state funds for public education, he said.

The property could bring significant revenue for the university if the foundation sold it for development. The land is valued at more than $5 million by Georgetown County, but the foundation bought the land in 1993 for $10.5 million, and it could sell for a far higher amount depending on the type of project to be built.

“We need more money for scholarships, more money for fellowships, more money for research space, and that’s the business of the foundation,” Meekins said. “We try to provide that money.”

Meekins said the foundation is not actively marketing the property, but “it is available for sale” if the right development proposal came along.

The foundation does not want to sell to anyone who would intensely develop the Prince George tract, he said. The idea is for someone to develop higher-end homes on large lots, similar to other communities on the Waccamaw Neck of Georgetown County, Meekins said.

Prince George is one of the last remaining large parcels of undeveloped real estate on the east side of U.S. 17 near Pawleys Island and Litchfield Beach, an increasingly popular resort area just south of Myrtle Beach.

The tract also is just up the coast from the internationally acclaimed North Inlet research area, an almost pristine system of marshes and tidal creeks where USC has its 17,500-acre Baruch Marine Field Laboratory.

The Prince George land itself is full of wildlife, some of it rare, and is home to the once-abundant long-leaf pine, a majestic evergreen. Among other things, the property provides habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker, which is federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.

A large percentage of the land is wetlands, which help control flooding and maintain water quality while attracting wildlife.

Owning the land

A sliver of the Prince George property extends to the oceanfront below Pawleys Island, but most of it is comprised of property away from the beach. Some of the land also is west of U.S. 17.

Environmentalists already have contacted attorneys about the sale, saying the property was never intended for development. They point to a 20-year-old legal notice that said the buyer of the Prince George tract should preserve most of the property.

A Feb. 3, 1993, federal register notice says anyone who was interested in purchasing the land at the time should include a declaration that the buyer “intends to use the property primarily for wildlife refuge, sanctuary, open space, recreational, historical, cultural or natural resource conservation purposes.”

Nancy Cave, a representative from the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said her group has already discussed the proposed sale with lawyers and is prepared to fight the foundation if necessary. The foundation didn’t acquire the property to sell for development, she said.

“It’s a lovely, wonderful ecosystem with wetlands and some uplands,” she said, noting that its proximity to the virtually undisturbed waters of North Inlet makes the Prince George tract significant to protecting water quality.

Cave said it’s ironic that USC’s foundation wants to sell and allow development on property so close to the university’s Baruch lab.

Even so, she conceded that a conservation easement that protects about half the 1,200 acres acres of the land could be dissolved if both the USC Development Foundation and the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism agree to do so. The parks department is considered the “holder” of the easement, meaning it is required by law to protect the land unless the easement is dissolved.

Meekins said USC’s foundation would like to drop the easement, but he said the foundation favors a new one being established once a buyer is found.

Some of the property included in the conservation easement contains wetlands. Wetlands are protected by federal law, although people can acquire federal permits to fill them. An easement, however, unless it’s dissolved, can prevent wetlands from being filled under any circumstances.

A ‘philanthropic citizen’

Phil Gaines, the state’s director of parks, said it’s too early to determine the final outcome of the easement. USC spokesman Wes Hickman did not say if the university favored selling the property, but he did issue a statement supporting the foundation.

“The Development Foundation has a long track record of being a responsible land owner, good community partner and philanthropic citizen,” the statement said. “We appreciate the work they do to support the academic mission of the university, our students and our faculty.”

The Prince George property has a colorful history. Owned for decades by the Vanderbilt family, the land was sold in the mid-1980s for development. But the developers’ plans for a condo complex fell through when they ran into financial problems. The federal government eventually took control of the 1,900 acres and sold it to the development foundation.

Another private development group put up the $10.5 million for the foundation to acquire the land. In return, the developers, which included Scott and John Trotter, carved out about 600 acres of the 1,900 acres.

The developers then began building a high-dollar resort community of about 150 homes, a handful of which have been built on the beach between Pawleys Island and Debordieu. The rest of the homes that have been built are in the land’s interior. Georgetown County property records show that some of the remaining undeveloped two to three-acre lots in the interior of the tract are valued at $200,000 to $300,000, or roughly $100,000 per acre.

But more than 1,200 of the 1,900 acres were to be preserved, according statements at the time by both the university and the USC development foundation.

Developers of the 600 acres said in a 1997 newsletter that 1,282 acres had been set aside for conservation, research and education. The development foundation also released a brochure showing extensive areas to be protected, including wildlife observation sites. Boardwalks were to be developed, research centers built and camp sites established, according to the USC Development Foundation brochure.

The developers’ newsletter quoted then-Carolina president John Palms as saying the Prince George land contained a unique eco-system, with 350 species of plants, that would be useful to researchers.

“This will be a living laboratory, a learning center that is not duplicated anywhere else in the world,” Palms said. “Our faculty is excited about this opportunity.”

Whether the foundation could legally sell the land remains open for debate. Georgetown County has land-use restrictions that could make that difficult, the Conservation League’s Cave said after discussing the matter with Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis. Otis could not be reached for comment.

Meekins said he has seen nothing to prevent the foundation from pursuing a sale. But he suggested the foundation’s current plans are not necessarily at cross purposes with the historic vision for the Prince George tract. The foundation would prefer a buyer who would put lower-density development on the 1,200-acres, so the land can retain many natural areas, he said.

Even so, the foundation can’t hold on to the property forever, he said. The foundation already has an agreement to sell about 100 acres on the west side of U.S. 17 for a school.

“It is available for sale if somebody offered us money for it,” Meekins said. “We would only sell it to be responsibly developed, something similar to the current Prince George development.”

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.

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