Sanford wants additional $50 million designated for land conservation in S.C.

Gov. Mark Sanford wants the state to spend an extra $50 million next year to protect land from development, nearly triple the amount committed to South Carolina's conservation bank in 2007.

But Sanford's plan, which would provide unprecedented funding of the bank, drew almost immediate opposition from key legislators, who said the state has other priorities.

"If we have $50 million, I'd rather we invest it in something that is going to produce jobs for the state," said House Ways and Means committee Chairman Dan Cooper, who said people might think he is a "grinch of the conservation land bank."

Among other things, the state needs extra money for education and health care, critics of the conservation bank plan said Monday. Cooper, R-Anderson, said the plan should face plenty of scrutiny next year.

Sanford said Monday that South Carolina would be foolish not to commit more money for land conservation. Otherwise, parts of the state could be developed intensely like Newark, N.J. and South Florida, he said.

"With the growth that's going to be coming our way over the next 10 years, now is the time to make sure our natural resources are protected," said Sanford after a news conference in Charleston County.

According to Sanford's plan, the money would come from additional revenues expected from growth in the state. The state is expected to receive about $230 million extra money from revenue growth. Sanford wants an extra $50 million for the Conservation Bank. That extra funding would be for one year only, the governor said. That would bring total funds to $65 million next year.

Last year, South Carolina committed about $24 million for property protection through the land bank, according to the House Ways and Means Committee. All but $5 million of that came from state documentary tax revenues, the budget committee reported.

Sanford said the

Conservationists were elated.

Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League, said the extra money is needed in a state that doesn't spend enough on land conservation.

"There are dozens of projects out there that haven't been funded," Beach said. "I think the public realizes we need to do more, and do more quickly."

Among the lands environmentalists say should be considered for conservation are-

nMore than 70,000 acres of forests in Charleston and Dorchester counties. Landowner MeadWestvaco is looking to develop part of the Hilton Head Island-sized area, but conservationists say much of it should be protected through land purchases or the purchase of development rights.

nThousands of acres along the Savannah River between Augusta and Savannah. Much of the property has been protected through the Conservation Land Bank, but substantial acquisitions remain on the table.

nLand in the Columbia area also is prime for protection, Beach said, including property in the Congaree and Wateree river flood plains. That includes the Green Diamond property, a tract south of Columbia that has been the source of development talk for most of this decade, including recently by the city of Cayce.

So far, the five-year-old S.C. Conservation Bank has spent $70,739,559 to buy property or to buy conservation easements on 134,172 acres.

When possible, the agency prefers to buy easements, which cost a fraction of outright land purchases. Under the easements, owners of the land agree not to develop the land, but get to keep the land. In many cases, they continue operating timber or farm operations or hunt clubs.

Conservation leaders think they are racing against developers to buy or gain easements as timber companies divest their land.

"We need to do this and do it quickly," said Hampton County landowner Wise Batten, who led an effort to preserve land in Jasper County near the Savannah River.

"Once Humpty Dumpty's broken, he's broken."