As conservationists push to save the state’s land protection bank, auditors released a report Thursday that says the agency is spending money without always showing that the expenditures are good investments.
The S.C. Conservation Bank has protected nearly 300,000 acres since 2002, but the Legislative Audit Council said it couldn’t find proof verifying the protected land was in danger of development – or worth the price.
Protecting ecologically important land from development was a key reason the bank was founded. But the audit said more than one-third of the time, the bank didn’t provide information showing land being bought was in jeopardy of development.
When documentation was available, it showed that appraisers who looked at land to be protected didn’t always support landowner arguments that the property was likely to be developed. One property unlikely to be developed was a duck-hunting preserve, the report said.
The bank also paid affluent hunting clubs an average of $250,000 more than other property owners to protect land. At least one-third of the time, the state spent money to protect land that provided no public access, the audit said.
Aside from those issues, the Conservation Bank sometimes has awarded grants to protect land without sufficient revenues to pay property owners, the audit said. At one point in 2014, the bank had overcommitted funds by $7.8 million, the audit said.
Auditors said operations could be improved by merging the Conservation Bank into the larger S.C. Department of Natural Resources. That could save money and make the bank run more smoothly, the audit said.
“The bank may benefit from a merger with SCDNR, but continue its separate mission,” the audit said.
Conservation Bank director Marvin Davant took issue with the LAC’s findings, sharply denying some of the report’s conclusions and suggesting other items of concern were overblown.
The bank doesn’t pay hunting clubs to protect land, although some of the land may be hunted, according to a response he submitted this week to the audit council. The response also said state law does not require public access. In addition, Davant said the agency has never exceeded its authorized budget.
Davant said Friday his agency’s expenditures are justified because the money is saving important land. The threat of development could apply to any land in South Carolina because it is a small, growing state, he said.
“The threat of development is one of those relative terms,” Davant said in an interview with The State newspaper. “You can be in the middle of nowhere and somebody can decide this makes a great place for a subdivision. These things pop up and then (more development) spreads out around it.”
The report, released late Thursday afternoon, comes amid renewed efforts to keep the bank from closing and to provide long-term funding. Environmentalists are lobbying for a bill to keep the Conservation Bank operating for the next decade. Without the change in law, the bank would close in 2018.
Formed in 2002, the Conservation Bank focuses on protecting wild, ecologically important land that is susceptible to development in South Carolina. It is funded by 25 cents on each deed recording fee. The bank buys property but also pays landowners not to develop their property.
In the latter case, landowners who grant “conservation easements” get to keep the property without providing public access. Conservationists say protecting land without public access still helps the public because, among other things, undeveloped property harbors wildlife and preserves water quality in nearby rivers.
Since its inception, the bank has spent about $130 million. Among the properties it has helped pay to protect are the Woodbury Tract, a vast swath of hardwood forests and swamps in the Pee Dee; land around Stumphouse Mountain, a historic site with a Civil War-era tunnel and a waterfall in the southern Appalachians near Walhalla; and property surrounding Charleston County’s Angel Oak, a massive live oak tree that is hundreds of years old.
The audit drew criticism Thursday from a leading conservationist, who said he expects bank critics to “trot it around” in an effort to close or curtail the Conservation Bank.
Dana Beach, who directs the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, questioned whether lawmakers from the Myrtle Beach area had pushed for the audit at the request of developers, to keep land from being protected. Horry County lawmakers have been skeptical of land protection efforts in their county for decades, and recently, have been in skirmishes with environmentalists over road construction in the area.
But Beach also took issue with the report, calling it deficient and lacking insight. The Conservation Bank has saved important wild areas of the state at minimal cost, he said. The bank has spent an average of less than $600-per-acre to do so, Beach said, citing figures in the audit. Davant said the Conservation Bank has also protected 226 miles of river corridor and 134 miles of creek frontage.
“I’m amazed at how poorly they seem to understand the big picture here,” Beach said of the LAC’s auditors, noting that “this report should be taken with something of a grain of salt.”
Sen. Greg Hembree, a North Myrtle Beach Republican who was among 20 lawmakers who asked for the audit, said he wasn’t surprised by the audit’s findings. He said his motivation was not to chill land conservation efforts in the Myrtle Beach area but to improve the way South Carolina spends money to protect open land. Hembree was undecided Friday on the future of the Conservation Bank.
“I don’t know if we need to drop back and start over, or do we just take the one we have and adjust it and reauthorize it, as it is,” Hembree said Friday. “I’m in support of the policy of dedicating a stream of money for conservation projects. Somebody might convince me that we need to just start over. I don’t think that’s going to be necessary, but I don’t know.’’
Public access is an issue with Hembree and a number of lawmakers and is likely to be debated in the Legislature this year. A bill filed this week by Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, would require property owners receiving public money for conservation easements to allow public access to their land.
In the audit request, the 20 lawmakers said they were concerned that the Conservation Bank was spending too much money paying wealthy landowners and that much of the protected land did not provide “meaningful” public access, which is a mission of the bank.