On the shores of Lake Moultrie sits the Wampee conference center, a high-end meeting complex of paneled rooms, historic buildings and expansive porches with sweeping waterfront views.
The center, a popular spot for weekend government retreats, is owned by Santee Cooper, a state utility whose mission is to provide electricity to millions of S.C. residents.
But with the state-owned power company reeling financially from a failed nuclear project, questions are being asked about whether Santee Cooper should sell the conference center and some of the other 45,000 acres it owns statewide.
At least a third of Santee Cooper’s real estate – more than 15,000 acres – is set aside for purposes other than making energy, according to an analysis by The State newspaper of the utility’s property records.
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Those properties range from waterfront recreation sites and campgrounds to residential land near Lake Moultrie and Santee Cooper’s Moncks Corner headquarters. The utility even owns a ball field in Berkeley County. However, much of the land is undeveloped.
“Anything they can do to raise capital and help pay off this debt, they need to do it – sooner rather than later,’’ said state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland. “I’m not suggesting a fire sale. But I am suggesting taking the time to talk about it.’’
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster wants to sell the state-owned utility and has been soliciting bidders. At least one – mammoth Florida-based NextEra Energy – is readying a bid, should skeptical legislators approve Santee Cooper’s sale.
‘Own land to serve customers’
Opinions vary on whether Santee Cooper should sell land holdings before its future is resolved. Also, it is unclear how much of Santee Cooper’s land is included in McMaster’s marketing of the utility.
In a recent statement, McMaster’s office said the governor favors keeping in public hands Santee Cooper-owned lakes Marion and Moultrie, and any park property that the utility owns.
But some legislators say they are uncomfortable with a state utility owning land – particularly conference centers and campgrounds – that isn’t needed for generating plants, transmission lines or other energy-making uses.
“They need to own land to serve customers,’’ said state Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington.
Others say selling tracts owned by Santee Cooper individually could bring in more money than if all the land is included in the sale of the utility to a private company.
State Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, said a study commissioned by the Legislature of Santee Cooper’s assets will provide a look at how much the utility is worth, including its real estate.
But, added Fanning, Santee Cooper doesn’t need to keep all the land it owns. He singled out the Wampee conference center as an example of land that should be considered for sale.
“We need to look at that piece of property,’’ said Fanning, whose district includes the site of the failed V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project. “You have an investment like that to protect you when you get in a bad situation or a financial bind. You’ll never find a bigger financial bind in South Carolina than we are in now.’’
Santee Cooper and senior project partner SCE&G spent $9 billion over a decade planning and building two nuclear reactors to complement the existing one at the V.C. Summer site in Fairfield County. But citing rising costs and the bankruptcy of chief contractor Westinghouse, the two companies quit the project July 31. That left more than 5,000 people out of work and ratepayers asking whether they would be paid back for the money they were charged for the project.
15,000 acres held for non-utility uses
Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said her utility sold some land that it considered surplus, long before the nuclear project shut down.
Since 2012, Santee Cooper has sold 134 tracts of land for $10.5 million, she said. Last year, the company sold 23 tracts for $2.4 million.
Some of those sales were of residential property that the company formerly leased to people for home sites, she said. The utility once leased 2,500 parcels of land that it owned, but that number has dropped to about 200, Gore said.
“Some years ago, we decided to get out of the leased property business,’’ Gore said. “It was not part of our core business operations.’’
While Santee Cooper owns 45,000 acres, the majority of its land is used or reserved for power production or is borderland around lakes, required by the federal government, Gore said. That property includes more than 2,600 acres once considered for a coal-fired power plant in Florence County, but that now sits vacant.
Of the more than 15,000 acres reserved for non-utility uses, most of the tracts are less than 1,000 acres, Santee Cooper records show.
Among those are:
▪ The 163-acre Somerset recreational area on Lake Moultrie in Berkeley County
▪ 114 acres of recreation property west of Myrtle Beach, near the Waccamaw River
▪ The more than 4,600-acre Camp Hall tract in Berkeley County. That tract is an industrial site near Volvo’s new manufacturing plant.
In addition to the 45,000 acres of land that Santee Cooper owns in most of the state’s 46 counties, lakes Moultrie and Marion, managed by the utility for energy and for recreation, cover more than 150,000 acres.
Transfer land to state parks?
Santee Cooper’s landholdings aren’t unusual for a South Carolina utility.
SCE&G, its partner in the V.C. Summer nuclear debacle, owns about 40,000 acres of S.C. land and operates Lake Murray near Columbia. And historically, Duke Energy marketed land for development in the Upstate.
But unlike Santee Cooper, SCE&G and Duke are investor-owned utilities whose landholdings aren’t public. Santee Cooper’s land is owned by the public, and that’s worth noting, environmentalists say.
Since much of the Santee Cooper land is not developed, some of it should be held by the state and protected – rather than sold as part of any sale to a private utility, said Gerrit Jobsis, a regional director with the conservation group American Rivers. Otherwise, private interests might develop pristine land, environmentalists say.
Steve Gilbert, a former U.S. Fish Wildlife Service biologist who now is with the S.C. Audubon Society, urged the state to move carefully in disposing of Santee Cooper’s landholdings.
“Santee Cooper has been, in most cases, a fairly good steward of that land, and it’s some beautiful land they own,’’ Gilbert said. “Right now, if it goes privately, there is just not a whole lot of control unless they negotiate conservation easements’’ to protect the land.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission records show Santee Cooper leases land for 49 recreational areas, including boat ramps on lakes Moultrie and Marion, as well as at Santee State Park. About 10,000 acres of land is set aside for forest management, FERC records show.
“The governor would like for the landholdings – lakes and parks – to remain with the state and likely be transferred to the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism,’’ McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said in an email.
“He has made that clear in every conversation he has had with interested parties.’’