July 12, 2014

So you want to own a S.C. plantation?

From aristocrats to industrialists to today, owners have one thing in common — money.

Want to buy a slice of heaven right here in South Carolina, complete with marsh views, cypress ponds, fields, forest and a breathtaking historic home? If so, a Lowcountry plantation might be a good fit for you.

Just don’t expect it to come cheap.

Beyond steep purchase prices, plantation owners face substantial maintenance and staff costs each year.

That is the reason that S.C. plantations historically have belonged to one group and one group only: the wealthy.

During America’s early days, rich Southerners, powered by slave labor, used the massive properties to grow profitable crops including indigo, cotton and rice.

Then, in the decades following the Civil War, Northern bankers and industrialists scooped up many plantations to use as winter hunting retreats.

These days, a mix of people own S.C. plantations, say Lowcountry real estate agents who specialize in the niche market.

Today, some owners still come from the North, while some from Atlanta and other parts of the South. A few come from overseas and the West Coast.

One thing they seem to all have in common is a reverence for the unique plantation landscape and its wildlife.

“These are not bloodthirsty hunters. If you want to kill something, you hop on a plane to Argentina,” said Charles Lane, the broker in charge for Charleston real estate company Holcomb, Fair & Lane. “These are people who want to nurture nature.”

The buyers these days also seem to be a little younger, says Calvert Huffines, president and owner of The Huffines Co., a Walterboro firm that specializes in plantation real estate sales and management.

Buyers want to enjoy their plantations with their family, he said, and use it less often to entertain clients, as previous generations of owners have done.

They also don’t care much about a plantation’s proximity to Charleston.

“They don’t come to shop in Charleston. They do their shopping in Palm Beach or New York. They come to experience the plantation,” says Huffines. “They’re here to get away and enjoy the property because the property is a world of its own.”

Potential buyers can expect to pay $3,000 to $7,000 an acre for a typical plantation, and anywhere from $500,000 to $1.5 million a year for maintenance costs, staff expenses and taxes, says Huffines.

Staffing may be bare bones – a few people managing the land and equipment – or luxurious – with specialized staff flown in to manage the horses and hunting dogs, do the cooking and clean the houses.

On the plus side, plantation owners periodically can harvest timber, earning about $2,000 an acre.

“Southern woods require management. (It’s) part science, part hard work,” says Charleston real estate broker Lane, who owns Willtown Plantation in the ACE Basin with his brother, Hugh. “If you don’t like that part of it, you won’t like owning a plantation. It’s a 12-month operation.”

Close to Willtown is Hope Plantation, which was purchased from onetime mogul Ted Turner in April for $15 million by a company affiliated with Spartanburg businessman George Dean Johnson.

The roughly 4,200-acre Hope Plantation is adjacent to Johnson’s 3,000-acre Pon Pon Plantation, which has its own airstrip and is famed for its wetlands and duck habitats.

In December 2004, Johnson – a former Blockbuster executive, and a founder and former owner of the Advance America payday loan company and Extended Stay America hotels – hosted Vice President Dick Cheney, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gov. Mark Sanford and then-U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint, soon-to-become a U.S. senator, for a duck hunt at Pon Pon.

Hope and Pon Pon, like many other plantations in the ACE Basin and throughout South Carolina, are protected by conservation easements.

As writer Virginia Beach, wife of Coastal Conservation League founder and executive director Dana Beach, details in her new book, “Rice & Ducks: The Surprising Convergence that Saved the Carolina Lowcountry,” conservationists, politicians and S.C. plantation owners worked hand in hand in the late 1980s and early 1990s to protect much of the 350,000-acre ACE Basin, an estuary whose acronym comes from the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers.

That commitment to conservation makes the ACE Basin appealing to plantation buyers who value the area’s natural beauty and sporting opportunities.

Lane knows that story firsthand.

He, his brother and his father all played roles in convincing politicians and neighbors to protect federal, state and private land from development and the destruction of wildlife habitat.

“There’s really nothing like it. This is unique to South Carolina,” Lane said of the ACE Basin’s protected wetlands. “We are the leaders in conservation.

“We show the rest of the world how to get it done.”

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