Gov. Henry McMaster has the right approach to the S.C. Conservation Bank: fix any problems but do not allow an important tool for land preservation in South Carolina to fade into history.
He used his veto power to reject the General Assembly’s action to take away the Conservation Bank’s funding and sunset the entity created in 2002 as an ongoing source to acquire real estate in the interest of preservation.
“South Carolina’s natural resources are a central driver of our economic prosperity,” McMaster said in his veto message. “Twenty-eight million people visit our state each year, contributing to a $20 billion tourism industry.”
“While I agree with many of the criticisms regarding the Conservation Bank, I believe it is a useful tool for protecting our environment and maintaining our competitiveness.”
Criticisms of SCCB include those in a legislatively funded audit: overpayment for properties, over-committing its budget, failing to provide enough public access and having a “subjective and ineffective application process" for grants awarded. Some lawmakers claim the agency is a way for wealthy land owners to receive tax breaks.
McMaster urged the Legislature to sustain his veto and set about a “reasoned debate about the Bank’s future and mission.”
Conservation Bank successes should not be ignored.
SCCB has helped protect nearly 300,000 acres around South Carolina by actions including guarding green space surrounding Angel Oak on Johns Island, providing funds for the purchase of Morris Island, preserving Camden’s Revolutionary War battleground and securing 8,700 acres along eight miles of the Santee River. The list of worthy projects is long, including protection of waterfowl habitats and public hunting areas in the Midlands.
In reality, SCCB is the only statewide source of funding available for willing landowners and their land trust partners to conserve significant natural resource lands, wetlands, historic and archaeological sites. SCCB is funded by a fraction of the S.C. documentary stamp tax (state deed recording fee). Of every $1.35 collected by the state, 25 cents is credited to the Conservation Bank Trust Fund. No tax dollars are used for funding.
SCCB provides the opportunity to leverage private and federal investments for the public benefit. But it must be reauthorized every five years to continue its work. The charter was extended by five years in 2012, meaning the Legislature had to act by 2017 to continue its existence.
The Conservation Bank’s successes have been achieved despite a modest allocation of money as it has obtained support from private and public sources to purchase land and to obtain permanent conservation easements for forests and farmland.
The program is completely voluntary: Land trust organizations, state agencies and local governments can apply for grants to acquire either title to, or a conservation easement on, properties with conservation and/or cultural/historic significance. Then it’s up to the landowners to decide whether to accept the grants and protect their properties. They are under no obligation to do so.
The Legislature should sustain the governor’s veto and keep the S.C. Conservation Bank alive.
Writing in The Post and Courier, Columbia attorney Burnie Maybank and Ashley Demosthenes, president and CEO of Lowcountry Land Trust, tell us why: “Our state population will soon exceed 5 million and is increasing at the astonishing rate of 104 people every day. We owe it to current and future generations of South Carolinians to protect what makes our state so beautiful and special, and the Conservation Bank is one important way to do that.”