The director of South Carolina’s land conservation bank is quitting after a powerful lawmaker blasted the agency for mishandling $3 million in taxpayer money.
Marvin Davant, a long-time state employee who has run the S.C. Conservation Bank for 15 years, submitted his resignation Oct. 13. He will retire by year’s end from the $97,000-a-year job.
Davant’s departure comes amid growing tensions between bank supporters, who say the agency is saving valuable wildlife habitat, and critics, who say the state is giving wealthy landowners millions of dollars in taxpayer money to preserve land that is not always accessible to the public.
One ally of the agency said the furor results from a larger effort by opponents to close the agency.
In the past year, Davant’s agency has come under fire from state auditors and, more recently, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee over funding decisions.
In an Oct. 6 letter to the bank, state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, blasted the agency for failing to give $3 million to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, as required in the state budget.
The budget required the bank to transfer $3 million to Natural Resources to help match federal grants. But the Conservation Bank already had committed some of the $3 million to a Lowcountry land trust. The Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust had to return $700,000 to the agency that the trust had planned to use for land protection in eastern South Carolina, trust officials said.
“This is an extremely serious matter and puts the Conservation Bank in violation of state law,’’ Leatherman’s letter to bank board chairman Jim Roquemore said. “I find it extremely concerning that the board and the executive management of an agency would put themselves in a position where they are unable to meet mandates ... by the General Assembly.’’
The criticisms by Leatherman, who also is the Senate’s president pro tem, come at what he called a “critical time’’ for the Conservation Bank. The bank must be reauthorized by the Legislature in 2018 or, by law, it will be shut down. House and Senate bills would extend the life of the bank, but the House bill also would require more public access on bank-funded land.
Conservation Bank board member Mike McShane and other bank officials said there was initial confusion with budget changes that affected the Conservation Bank. McShane said Davant made a mistake, but the matter was corrected quickly.
“It was a numbers glitch and it’s all worked out,’’ McShane said. “DNR has their money.’’
The bank’s board voted Thursday to develop a plan on how to proceed after Davant leaves. It’s possible the agency will have only an interim director until looming legislative battles are resolved, McShane said. McShane said Davant was not asked to resign, although there have been ongoing discussions about his retirement plans.
The Conservation Bank uses taxpayer money to protect land from development. The agency has spent more than $150 million since its founding more than 15 years ago, protecting nearly 300,000 acres.
But in striking land-protection deals, the agency sometimes had paid owners not to develop their property without guaranteeing the public has access to the land.
Some lawmakers question why the state should pay landowners, many wealthy, if others can’t access the property. Also, in February, the Legislative Audit Council report said the bank sometimes has paid wealthy landowners to protect property that was not threatened by development. In one case, the owners of a duck-hunting preserve had a deal with the Conservation Bank, the council found.
At the time, Davant disputed many of the audit council’s findings. His agency says 80 percent of the land it has protected has some public access. But bank supporters say it’s not always possible to guarantee public access on ecologically important land.
Davant declined to address his departure with The State. In his resignation letter, he said he is proud of his legacy at the agency.
“It is time now for me to move on,’’ Davant said in the letter to the bank board. “As you know, I love to hunt and fish and spend time with my friends and family in the country, and time is the thing most dear to all of us. I am sure God has something else in store for me to do.’’
Among the properties the bank has protected are the Woodbury Tract, a vast Pee Dee swamp and forest; land around Stumphouse Mountain, a historic area that includes a waterfall in the southern Appalachians near Walhalla; and property surrounding the Angel Oak, a massive live oak tree near Charleston
Conservationist Dana Beach said criticisms of Davant and the bank are overblown and part of a larger effort by opponents to close the agency. He and McShane said Davant has been a key cog in South Carolina’s efforts to protect open space as the state grows.
“This is kindergarten stuff,’’ said Beach, director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “This program is one of the most successful, highly leveraged government programs ever initiated in South Carolina.’’