I MUST ADMIT, I chuckled when I learned that some Richland County officials were concerned about the future of thousands of acres of land in Lower Richland that are being set aside for public use and protection.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing humorous about conservation. Richland absolutely should question the potential use of Cook’s Mountain and the adjacent Goodwill Plantation, prized waterfront properties that Canadian mining company Romarco Minerals has pledged give to the state in exchange for mining on up to 1,100 acres of wetlands in Lancaster County. And Richland County Council wisely gave the county’s conservation commission chair and others the green light to negotiate with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the public agency that will fashion a plan to manage the pristine areas.
Richland’s conservation commission wants DNR to allow daily access for various activities at Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation. The state agency plans to close the property “completely or in part” for hunting 49 days of the year. But DNR needs Richland’s support because the proposed land donation will remove large tracts from the tax rolls; the matter goes before the Joint Bond Review Committee on Wednesday and the State Budget and Control Board on Tuesday. So this is the time for Richland County to have input and get a firm understanding about the kind of access the public will have — preferably in black and white to limit any surprises later.
But still, I chuckle. You see, back in 2012, Richland County had a great opportunity to get its hands on at least a portion of this property — Cook’s Mountain — and simply blew it.
Here’s what happened: Landfill operator Republic Services was desperately searching for a way out of agreements with Richland County and the owners of Cook’s Mountain requiring it to close the landfill in 2019. The company lobbied County Council for an indefinite extension on the life of the garbage dump, promising increased revenue from landfill fees. It then purchased Cook’s Mountain. But the landfill operator made it clear it didn’t want the natural landmark; it only wanted to own it long enough to tear up the agreement with Cook’s Mountain Timber that called for the landfill to close. Its plan was then to sell it.
Frankly, if Richland County had done the right and smart thing and rejected Republic’s attempt to extend the life of its landfill indefinitely, the county could have purchased Cook’s Mountain. But when I and others suggested the county purchase the property using a portion of its revenue from the 2 percent hospitality tax, which is supposed to be used for tourism-related projects, some council members scoffed at the idea while others said Richland couldn’t afford it.
That just wasn’t true: The council continued discussions about building an unnecessary sports complex in Northeast Richland for upwards of $20 million using hospitality tax revenue and, worse, continued to pursue the purchase of a 44-acre site along Garners Ferry Road for an even more unnecessary park that has little chance of becoming the tourist draw that it’s been billed as. While the county wisely abandoned the Northeast complex, it paid $1 million to purchase the 44 acres on Garners Ferry and since has earmarked another $1 million for what has been described as the first phase of that project. Little has been done on that project, but you can expect even more money to be headed its way. And, of course, the council is still dreaming up ways to spend even more hospitality tax dollars.
To be fair, I’m sure some members of the conservation commission would have loved for County Council to have bought Cook’s Mountain.
Even if the county really didn’t have the money to buy Cook’s Mountain, Republic likely wanted to extend the life of the landfill bad enough that Richland could have gotten it to turn the natural formation over to the county. As far as I know, the county didn’t pursue that avenue. If it did, it obviously wasn’t successful.
So, to see Richland officials expressing a desire to have a say in what happens to Cook’s Mountain and Goodwill Plantation now drips with irony. This isn’t the first time Richland has questioned plans for the planned preserve: In May, County Council had a lengthy discussion about whether to issue strongly worded comments regarding a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit involving the gold mine. It settled on softer language suggesting that DNR guarantee “fair and equitable access” to county residents.
In the end, I’m hoping the county does get a say in how the land is used. DNR should work to ensure that this is open to the larger public for as much of the year as possible. This shouldn’t be a case where a privileged few get optimum enjoyment from the preserve while the many are left to accept whatever crumbs of access are left.
Reach Mr. Bolton at
(803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.