COLUMBIA, SC - A company that once envisioned developing a $1 billion residential and retail community on a Richland County flood plain has quietly sold much of the original 4,500-acre tract to a handful of local interests.
Columbia Venture LLC has in the past decade divested itself of about 3,000 acres as its owners have sought to recoup their money from a project that was hampered by flood restrictions and opposition in Richland County.
What the land ownership changes mean for future development of the property remains unclear, but the issue is of interest these days because of a recent federal plan that could make building easier.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, after years of restricting development of the flood-threatened land, is proposing to loosen some restrictions for the area between Bluff Road and the Congaree River. Much of the old Green Diamond property would fall out of a floodway zone, a category that limits development because of the hazard of rushing water.
Businesses associated with state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, have purchased the bulk of the Columbia Venture project area, mostly south of Interstate 77 near the Congaree River and Gills Creek, according to court and property records in Richland County.
Columbia Venture, a company started by Myrtle Beach developer Burroughs & Chapin in the late 1990s, still owns about 1,200 acres in the area of the old Green Diamond development site. Most of the property is north of Interstate 77 near the Heathwood Hall school and Columbia’s sewer plant, according to Richland County property records.
Finlay, a major landowner in lower Richland County, said he’s not interested in developing the property his companies have acquired from Columbia Venture. Finlay said much of the land, which records show is about 2,900 acres, is used to grow crops, such as corn, wheat and soybeans. He also allows some hunting on the land.
“I didn’t buy it for development,’’ Finlay said. “Its main purpose is agricultural.’’
Finlay said he might place conservation easements on the property, a legal status that often limits development of a person’s land in exchange for tax considerations.
Tony Cox, executive vice president for real estate at Burroughs & Chapin, said his company would like to see the remaining 1,200 acres developed eventually, but he said the company was still assessing the flood map changes. Burroughs & Chapin, which he said owns about 43 percent of Columbia Venture, has been involved in a protracted lawsuit with Richland County over local restrictions that also have limited development on the land.
Cox said the company sold much of the land to earn revenue during tough financial times.
“We were going through the great recession, and we were like most developers, taking advantage of what opportunity we could,’’ he said.
Court and property records show that Columbia Venture has been paid about $13.4 million for the land it sold, mostly since 2006, although Cox questioned that amount. When Burroughs & Chapin announced its plans in 1999, news reports said the company had spent $11 million buying the property. More recent court documents indicate the price tag was closer to $18 million.
Attempts to reach Deas Manning, which court records list as Columbia Venture’s manager, have been unsuccessful since last week.
FEMA’s plan is to reduce the size of a floodway zone, which virtually stopped all development. The floodway area would hug the Congaree River along a series of homemade levees, according to plans. Currently, the zone extends well inland.
Lisa Sharrard Jones, a local flood consultant, said it’s not unusual for landowners to seek to develop land after flood restrictions are reduced.
“Generally, when land opens up that has been previously undevelopable, or more expensive to develop, people start to evaluate their options and start planning,’’ she said.
The flood maps are not final and are open for public review. A public meeting will likely be held in late June, after which the government will accept appeals to the maps by those who think the new flood rules may be in error, said Maria Cox Lamm, the Department of Natural Resources’ state flood plain coordinator.
In addition to Finlay, Columbia Venture collectively has sold several hundred acres to the city of Columbia, a lower Richland church and a development group along Bluff Road. The city has bought about 300 acres for roughly $3.4 million, according to county property records and Columbia utilities director Joey Jaco. That land is adjacent to Columbia’s sewer plant.
The Green Diamond property, between the Congaree River and Bluff Road, once was a big farm overseen by Burwell Manning. The genial Manning sold the property for the development project to help him satisfy farm debts with the federal government.
Once billed as a “city within a city,’’ the Green Diamond never got off the ground. Not only did flood rules restrict development, but many people opposed the project. Burroughs & Chapin initially irked many people in Richland County by failing to provide details of its development plan.
The original project site is pockmarked with wetlands and is several miles upstream from Congaree National Park, the only national park in South Carolina.
The land is protected by a series of earthen levees that the federal government in the past did not recognize as an impediment to rising floodwaters from the Congaree River. But FEMA’s most recent assessment has reduced the floodway area because the government now can give credit for the uncertified levees. In 2011, members of Congress urged FEMA to make the change in policy. Two letters from February 2011, obtained by The State newspaper, do not show involvement by South Carolina’s congressional delegation.