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County Council, November 14

Greenbelt grant rejected for easement over Legare family property
Approves $12.5 million for African American Museum
Warwick Jones

We won’t say that the Finance Committee “rubber stamps” the recommendations of the County Greenbelt Bank. But most of the Bank’s recommendations have an easy passage though Council. So the rejection by the Finance Committee of the $900,865 grant to purchase a conservation easement over 314 acres on Johns Island was a surprise. The cost of the easement, at $2,869 an acre, was above the $1,634 an acre average paid by the Bank in 2012. But then again, the land was probably above-average value considering the frontage to the Stono River and the tributaries.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the decision of the Finance Committee was political. The owners of the land and the three recipients of the funds are members of the Legare family, one of which is Thomas Legare. Those who have followed the I-526 saga will know that Mr. Legare is a leader, perhaps the most prominent, of the opposition to the I-526 extension. He has frequently appeared before Council to speak on the issue, and he has not minced words. He also ran for the District 8 Council seat at the last election. He was defeated by Council member Johnson, who interestingly spoke against the extension in her campaign. She ultimately voted for the extension, thus tipping the voting balance in its favor.

The Lowcountry Open Land Trust (LOLT) was the applicant seeking green belt funds. If successful, it would purchase the conservation easement over the 314 acre Legare property. According to the agenda documents, the value of the easement was $2.574 million. The grant recommended by the Greenbelt Bank would represent roughly a third of this amount. However, the property owners would retain the right to split the parcel into 4 tracts and to build up to 8 residential structures. They could also build two new docks on the Stono River and 2 new docks on a tributary.

The rights retained by the owners are not so different to those retained by other property owners who created conservation easements. If there is a difference, Legare Farms has programs for which it charges admission. These programs include summer camps, pumpkin patches and a harvest dinner. These money making activities did not seem to sit well with some Council members. Whether money making is a valid reason for rejecting the grant is debatable. After all, most landowners who create conservation easements don’t allow entry to their properties at all. And if a conservation easement is granted, money making activities are not prohibited.

We might add that the LOLT is a highly regarded conservation group and very active in the County. It has received a number of grants since the inception of the County’s greenbelt program. We’d also add that the members of the Greenbelt Bank are appointed by Council members and are prominent members of the community.

Only Council members Schweers and Sass voted for the grant last night. Council members Qualey and Condon were absent. Council will again consider the grant at its meeting on Tuesday.

The only other item of note before the Finance Committee last night was the funding request for the City of Charleston sponsored International African American Museum. The cost of the Museum is estimated at $75 million and City Council at a meeting a few weeks ago approved a bond issue to raise $12.5 million. Interest and amortization were to come from its Accommodation Tax revenues. Mayor Riley was before the Finance Committee last night seeking another $12.5 million. The County agreed to “lend” this amount to the City, for the museum. The County would fund the interest and amortization of the borrowings by drawing largely on the allocation that is made each year to the City out of the County’s Accommodation Fee.

The City expects to raise the $50 million balance of funds from State, Federal and private sources.

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