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Greenbelt Bank Meeting, May 21

Bank kicks off with over $11 million in grants

But refuses to make a decision on Long Savannah parcel

Warwick Jones

The distribution of sales tax funds for greenbelt purchases is now fully underway. The Urban Grants Committee met earlier this month and approved a number of applications for urban grants. Yesterday, the Charleston County Greenbelt Bank approved 11 applications for rural grants. Before being distributed, the urban grants must be approved by the Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC) - which by coincidence, approved them yesterday- and then by the County Council. In the case of rural grants, approval is needed only by County Council.

The funds for both the urban and rural and grants will come from the proceeds of a $75 million bond issue that was approved by County Council late last year. The interest and the amortization of the bonds will be provided from half-cent sales tax funds. Another bond issue, for $25 million, is anticipated in fiscal 2010. As determined by the Greenbelt Advisory Board (GAB) and agreed to by Council, funds for greenbelts will be split 70% for rural grants and 30% for urban.

Applications for $22.8 million
Total funds requested yesterday for rural grants amounted to $22.8 million with a total of 18 applications. Not all were successful. And according to our calculation, a total of $11.7 million was approved for both fee simple acquisitions and for easements. Many of the applications were impressive and under the GAB defined assessment process, achieved nearly perfect scores.

Considering that this was the first meeting of the Greenbelt Bank to consider applications, and the first test of the GAB-defined review process, some glitches could have been expected. But there were none and the meeting ran smoothly. In large measure, the credit must go to the staff which reviewed applications and guided applicants in making submission. Some of the applicants of course were well-versed in the grant process and knew exactly what to provide.

Board silent on Long Savannah application
If there were a surprise, it related to the application from the City of Charleston for funds to create a park adjacent to the proposed Long Savannah development in West Ashley. It was not that the bank approved or rejected the application. It just sat on its hands. Chairman Cooper and Board member Lane expressed some concern over the application and Board member Lane moved that it be rejected. But nobody stepped up the second the motion. And nobody followed with a motion to approve the project. So despite the prodding of the Chairman for some action on the part of members, nothing happened. It will now be up to the Council to make a decision.

Why such indecision? Probably because board members didn't quite know what to do. It was not just a simple decision of making a grant. The creation of the park – on land to be sold by the developer - is conditional on the County moving the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). And this is something beyond the Bank board authority. There were also other issues which we will refer to later.

A table showing a summary of the approvals can be seen by pressing Download file

Significant funding for Francis Marion Forest area
The first three applications related to land within the Francis Marion Forest area and will lead to the conservation of more than 1200 acres of a cost at little less than $5 million to the Bank Two of the applications were made by the Nature Conservancy and the other by the US Forest Service. Applicants had also lined up funds – generally 50% or more - from other sources to assist in the purchase.

The 100 acre Wombaw Tract was also close to the Francis Marion Forest but was related to preserving land around an historic church - the Saint James Santee Parish Church - than forest creation. The Village Museum, of McLellanville, was the applicant. The Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Bank were also financing about 67% of the purchase.

Some hesitancy over sweet grass application
The next application made by the Sweet Grass Society LLC was for $1.6 million to buy 70 acres. The Bank was asked to fund all of the cost. The application caused unease amongst members. The cause was worthwhile - to provide suitable land to grow sweet grass for the basket making industry. Presently nearly all grass was brought from Georgia or Florida. But members questioned the high cost and whether land somewhere else could be acquired at a lower price. There was also an issue of about the buildings on the land and their value. As the Chairman pointed out, the bank was restrained to lending only for the purchase of land.

The Board thought that some encouragement should be given to the society and approved a $500,000 grant with conditions that a conservation easement be defined with a nonprofit group, and more importantly, matching funds found.

Impressive conservation on Wadmalaw Island
The set of applications that followed was truly impressive. Three were made by the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and another by the Nature Conservancy. The applications covered more than 1500 acres of what was described as the entrance way to Wadmalaw Island. Three of the properties belonged to members of the same family (Sosnowski), and they had agreed to conservation easements. The total grants amounted to $4.3 million. The Land Trust noted that applications will be made to the Conservation Bank for funding as well. If the requests were successful, the requests to the Greenbelt Bank would be cut. Members of the Board noted the excellence of the applications and the high-scoring. They would have approved full funding but were restrained by the belief that there would be no funds from the State bank if they had. Consequently some discussions will be initiated with the Conservation Bank.

The request from the Nature Conservancy was for Oakgrove Farm which covers 297 acres and financing of $708,000. The Conservation Bank will be asked to finance the purchase as well.

The Bryan Dairy request was for $850,000 to cover a conservation easement over 951 acres on Johns Island. Most of the parcel - about 700 acres - is marshland. Again, a grant from the Conservation Bank will be sought and the amount gained from the Greenbelt Bank cut by a similar amount. The Bank approved the request but it was subject to a new appraisal and to the nature of the easement negotiated with the owners.

Request by Hollywood and one from Rockville denied
Requests for grants were made by the towns of Hollywood and Rockville. In the case of Hollywood, the land was sought for a park and by Rockville, to preserve the historic ambience. The Board was not impressed by the submissions and rejected that from Hollywood and one from Rockville. The other application from Rockville would be considered if the town came back with matching funds.

Other issues with Long Savannah
We have already noted the Board’s reaction to the application by the City of Charleston. Chairman Cooper later dominated the discussion soley because most members were not inclined to participate. He expressed concern with moving the UGB and noted how integral it was to the County’s Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan. He also wondered why the application was made. The purchase would be best suited to the PRC. It was already negotiating with Long Savannah for another but larger parcel, entrance to which would be through the parcel the City sought to acquire. The City intended to create an active park. This was not something that the Bank should be considering given the guidelines for Rural Grants, the Chairman noted. Board member Templeton expressed the view that the acquisition price was very good value, though he and other members expressed no opinion about the movement of the UGB. For the record, the PRC is presently talking with the Long Savannah over the possible acquisition of 1600 acres for $8 million. Again, the acquisition is subject to the County moving the UGB to include the Long Savannah development on the urban side.

Applications by Edisto Open Land Trust deferred
The applications from the Edisto Open Land Trust were also deferred. The Board thought there was much merit in the applications but the amounts sought were too high, particularly in the light of those granted for easements on Wadmalaw Island. It was asked to seek lower the acquisition prices and thereby grant requests.

But Fish and Wildlife Services breezes through
The final application – from the Fish and Wildlife Services - breezed through and its $300,000 request approved. It had much of the funding of the $825,000 cost in place and sought the remainder from the Bank. The parcel was only 30 acres but it was waterfront and allowed access to the water by kayakers. The Services already has a large acreage under conservation in the Edisto area.

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