‘Legacy conservation’ proposed $11.9M for 6,000 Marion Forest acres

The last deal done under Charleston County’s rural greenbelt program could be its biggest yet: $11.9 million for the 6,000-acre Fairlawn tract, the last large chunk of privately held land inside the Francis Marion National Forest.

The proposal is as complicated as the former plantation is huge, and there’s no guarantee that five County Council members will approve it on Aug. 16.

The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited application would protect a vast swath of wetlands and forests along U.S. Highway 17, one that, if developed instead, would worsen East Cooper’s traffic woes and make controlled burns in the Francis Marion a headache, if not a nonstarter.

Local conservationist Hugh Lane, chairman of the county’s Greenbelt Bank Board, said Fairlawn “has been under the microscope of the conservation community for a long time.”

“It is, in my opinion, a legacy conservation for South Carolina,” he added.

Sarah Hartman, land protection director with the Nature Conservancy’s South Carolina chapter, called Fairlawn a keystone project.

“It’s an amazing compromise,” she said. “Everybody is making sacrifices and getting something.”

The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited would protect about 6,028 acres by paying $11.2 million to buy 4,800 acres, then conveying it to the U.S. Forest Service, which owns and manages the Francis Marion National Forest.

Another $700,000 would be spent on a conservation easement for 1,193 adjoining acres.

The 4,800 acres would offer opportunities for public use such as canoeing, hiking and biking.

Most of the money would come from the county’s greenbelt program, while the conservation groups would put up $457,180.

The property owners, which include companies representing two families, would get certain hunting rights during the rest of their lifetimes, rights that would prohibit public hunting and fishing during hunting season.

In exchange, the conservation groups would get what they feel is a bargain, about $1,900 an acre.

Other greenbelt deals have averaged $3,200 per acre. They also would get a stronger buffer on the Francis Marion Forest’s southern end.

Also, the town of Awendaw and the Coastal Conservation League would agree to settle their lawsuit over Awendaw’s annexation of the Nebo tract, part of Fairlawn that would be developed.

Coastal Conservation League Director Dana Beach said the property is beautiful and historic, a former rice plantation that also includes an area where the very rare Bachman’s warbler was seen regularly during the 20th century.

Beach said the league feels more comfortable about development on the Nebo tract if nearby tracts are protected.

While the Nebo lawsuit going away would ensure that Awendaw’s boundaries won’t diminish, town Administrator Bill Wallace said he could not say that the town supports the deal.

“It depends on how the lawsuit is resolved,” he said. “Our Town Council has not taken a position. Our lawyers are working on a potential settlement of this lawsuit, but until it is settled, I don’t feel comfortable commenting about it.”

County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said he has not decided if he favors the deal, saying that he needed more information about the lawsuit’s resolution.

“It concerns me too that they’ve got a deed restriction of gun rights for life,” he added. “That’s a problem. If you don’t have full rights to the property, I don’t think taxpayers would want to invest that kind of money.”

Louise Maybank, chairwoman of the Greenbelt Advisory Board, a group asked to ensure that the county’s greenbelt plan is properly implemented, said she hopes the overall good for the county’s conservation remains at the forefront as the details are debated.

“A similar project is not going to present itself. This is a lifetime opportunity,” she said. “It truly is the signature piece of the rural portion of the program.”

Lane noted that Fairlawn was one of the first tracts that conservationists eyed after county voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 2004, a vote that generated about $130 million for rural conservation and park projects.

“What a wonderful way to go out of business,” Lane said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.