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Greenbelt Bank, July 18

Three more rural applications approved
Concern about proposed PRC purchase of Harmony Hall property

Warwick Jones

The Greenbelt Bank approved three more financings at its meeting today. The applications were presented and discussed at an earlier meeting but decisions deferred. In two cases, the deferral was to allow the applicant to seek a lower purchase price and thereby lower funding, and the other, to gather more information. The Board was happy with the new information and unanimously approved all the applications.

Two important conservation easements on Edisto Island
The first two applications related to land on Edisto Island and were made by the Edisto Island Open Land Trust. The Trust has been negotiating with the owners of two properties, aggregating 180 acres, for the creation of conservation easements. Their creation would lead to a “swath” of interconnected properties covered by conservation easements. Because of the connectivity, and other reasons, the Trust stated that the easements were critical.

Indigo Farms amounts to 103 acres of which 102 acres are highlands. The owner has the right to subdivide into 21 lots. However this right will be negated when an easement is put in place. The Trust sought $396,000 from the Bank to pay the owners for the creation of the easement. This amount represents a payment of $3,852 an acre and compares with $14,706 an acre sought by the owner earlier this year.

The Bank was told that the property had been appraised at $4.557 million and the value of the easement was estimated at $3.307 million. According to these figures, the owner was selling the easement to the Trust for about 12% of value

Creek farm was similar. It is a 78 acre property, all highland. The Trust was seeking funds to pay the $306,915 the owner was seeking for the easement. According to the Trust, the appraised value of the property was $2.8 million and the value of the conservation easement was $2.0 million. The $306,915 sought by the owner was 15.3% of the appraised value of the easement and amounts to $3,950 an acre. It compares to $19,305 an acre sought earlier this year

State Conservation Bank asked to share in financing
The Bank approved full funding but hoped that the State Conservation Bank would agree to fund part of the acquisition and thereby reduce the commitment by the Greenbelt Bank. And considering that the State Bank had agreed to share some of the funding of easements approved at an earlier meeting of the County Bank, there are grounds for optimism.

We were also encouraged by the restraint and responsibility exercised by the Greenbelt Bank. It recognized the very high price sought by the property owners in the original applications. It was clear that no financing was forthcoming unless the prices were reduced to reasonable levels. Obviously the owners were listening.

Property for growing sweet-grass approved
The other financing approved related to a property near McLellanville on which sweet grass was to been sown and harvested, for use by the sweet-grass basket-weaving “industry”. The Bank originally was daunted by the high price. It also asked the applicant to get more support from organizations interested in the industry. The applicant could not obtain a lower price and indeed, it seems that the owner has offers to buy at or above the $1.6 million that is being sought. But the applicant did enlist support from other organizations interested in basket weaving.

Notwithstanding the high purchase price, the Board approved financing for the $1.6 million acquisition but noted there must be a reverter clause (to the County) and easements on the property.

GAB to better define Heritage sites and application process
It was probably the sweet-grass basket application more than anything else that caused members of the Board to question the adequacy of the present guidelines relating to Heritage sites. Heritage sites are on the list of properties whose purchase can be financed by half-cent sales tax funds. But in the opinion of the Chairman and other board members, the definition of sites and the assessment for financing purposes has not been adequately set out. So the Board agreed to ask the Greenbelt Advisory Board (GAB) to take up the task.

Some irresponsible statements relating to Harmony Hall purchase
The final matter that came up for consideration was the proposed acquisition by the PRC of 430 acres – Harmony Hall near Meggett - by the Parks and Recreation Commission. (PRC) We are not sure of all the facts and the sequence of events but judging from the discussion today and what was in the Post & Courier this morning, there is cause for concern. This concern was raised by Ms. Louise Maybank, Chair of the GAB. She stated that only the Greenbelt Bank was in a position to approve funding out of half-cent sales tax funds for projects in the rural areas of the County. In the case of Harmony Hall, its acquisition may have merit. But nobody on the PRC could promise funding from sales tax funds. The PRC could use its own funds – it has $36 million already allocated – but it cannot promise funding that the Greenbelt Bank needs to approve.

The issue was raised following a public meeting in Meggett and a meeting of the PRC where the acquisition of the Harmony Hall property was discussed. It gets hazy thereafter with reports that the Chairman of the PRC and the Mayor of Meggett suggesting that sales tax funds would be forthcoming to finance the $10 million purchase. There was also a comment that Senator Ford had agreed to set legislation in motion to allow the PRC to part finance the acquisition. (The PRC under State Law cannot sell land)

It does not pass the smell test
If the Harmony Hall dish is kosher, why is there a suspicious whiff of bacon? The whiff includes Representative “Chip” Limehouse as the selling broker for the land, a sales price very high relative to the purchase price, a request that Tom O’Rourke, Executive Director of the PRC not be told what is going on, and haste to complete the deal. There is also the thought that if the PRC has to pick up the $10 million tab for the purchase, it will be a large slug out of the $36 million it has to spend on acquisitions.

The owner of Harmony Hall paid $9.6 million for 590 acres earlier this year and is selling back 430 acres for $10 million. We don’t know the nature of the land withheld so it is not possible to comment fully of the relative values. But even if most of the land were marshland, and we don’t believe it is, the developer is looking to a considerable gain in a very short time.