Gov. Henry McMaster is launching an investigation of the state’s Conservation Bank, credited with protecting land from development but recently criticized for how it has spent taxpayer money.
In a letter Tuesday to state Inspector General Brian Lamkin, McMaster said he wants a “thorough inspection and review” of the bank, including its accounting practices. Lamkin, an appointee of the governor, will start the probe, a McMaster staff member said Tuesday night.
The Conservation Bank drew fire this year after the Legislative Audit Council issued a scathing report questioning how the agency spent taxpayer money.
The audit noted the bank sometimes pays wealthy landowners not to develop their property without guaranteeing public access to the land. The audit also said some landowners get payments for property that isn’t threatened by development. Bank officials disputed the report’s criticisms.
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More recently, state Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman blasted the bank for failing to give $3 million to another state agency, as required in the state budget. Bank director Marvin Davant retired after Leatherman’s letter. Bank officials said they gave the money to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources after a mix-up.
“I agree with many criticisms regarding the bank, both as to its operations and its outcomes,” McMaster said in his letter, obtained by The State. “One such criticism of the bank is the lack of public accountability and access.”
The Conservation Bank has been a controversial agency since its founding more than 15 years ago.
Hailed by supporters as a way to protect undeveloped land before it is paved for housing or shopping malls, some lawmakers regularly have sought to cut the bank’s funding, questioning the need for it.
The bank has spent about $150 million since its inception, protecting nearly 300,000 acres.
Supporters defend the agency, saying it has protected land at a relatively low cost to South Carolina. Boosters acknowledge the bank pays some landowners not to develop land, but say that is the only way to make sure the property is protected. Protecting land, whether publicly accessible or not, preserves water quality in rivers used by everyone and provides habitat for wildlife, supporters say.
Dana Beach, director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said he doesn’t agree with McMaster’s push for an investigation.
“I’m stunned,” Beach said. “I cannot imagine what he is thinking – or not thinking.”
Among lands the bank has helped pay to protect are the Woodbury property, a swampy forested tract in the Pee Dee; acreage at Stumphouse Mountain, a historic site with a waterfall in the southern Appalachians; and property surrounding Charleston County’s Angel Oak, a live oak tree that is hundreds of years old.