Richland County should acquire Cook’s Mountain — one of the Columbia area’s most significant natural landmarks — for use as a public nature preserve, a county conservation board agreed Monday.
The Richland County Conservation Commission acknowledged that buying Cook’s Mountain faces many hurdles, including funding. But a board resolution says county ownership of the 1,131-acre property is the best way to maintain public access to “this unique natural resource.”
“This opportunity doesn’t come along daily; this doesn’t come along even once in a lifetime,” said Carol Kososki, the Conservation Commission’s chairwoman. “It is an opportunity for Richland County to preserve this for future generations.”
What will happen to Cook’s Mountain has been a point of discussion in Richland County since the tract went up for sale earlier this year.
A landfill company says it has a deal to buy Cook’s Mountain from its longtime owners, who had for decades allowed the public to use the property as an unofficial nature park. Now, people worry that a new owner could shut off future access and build houses on the top 30 acres, which, unlike the rest of the land, are not protected from development.
The recommendation to acquire Cook’s Mountain, approved unanimously by the advisory board, is being forwarded to Richland County Council for consideration next month.
County officials say they do not have the money to buy the land, which could cost $5 million or more. But some say Richland should seek help from land trusts. If the county can’t acquire the property, it should seek access and management rights from the mountain’s owner, the commission said.
Cook’s Mountain is an unusually tall land formation in otherwise flat lower Richland County. Rising 374 feet above sea level, the forested mountain offers commanding views of the Wateree River flood plain. Mountain plants not often seen in central South Carolina grow on its upper slopes. At its base are deep swamps more typical of the coastal plain. Walking trails and an education pavilion were developed by its private owners.
Mildred Myers, a conservation commission member from lower Richland County, said Cook’s Mountain should be preserved by the county, but not at any cost.
The landfill company that currently is buying the mountain from its owners plans to resell the property. But the landfill company, an arm of national waste giant Republic Services Inc., also wants Richland County not to close the company’s lower Richland landfill in 2019, as scheduled. The company already has offered the county more revenue, potentially millions of dollars, in exchange for keeping the site open.
Some commissioners expect Republic to offer to resell Cook’s Mountain to the county — only if the county agrees to drop a requirement that the waste site close. The Conservation Commission agreed to recommend a special study of the waste dump.
“I am totally against the landfill having their lifetime extended,” Myers said. “I don’t like the idea of them buying Cook’s Mountain, then selling it to the county for favors.”
Landfill lawyer Weston Adams III acknowledged the effort to acquire Cook’s Mountain is continuing.