Wildlife rehab group faces issues with easement

For more than 25 years, Keeper of the Wild founder and director Janet Kinser has been caring for orphaned and injured wild animals, such as this otter.

With a deadline to move looming, a longtime Lowcountry wildlife rehabilitation charity wants to relocate to a new home near Walterboro but has hit a snag over the legalities of a conservation easement.

Last winter, Keeper of the Wild was notified by the S.C. Forestry Commission that the organization had to vacate property it used for the past decade off U.S. Highway 15 near St. George, located in the upper part of Dorchester County.

Keeper of the Wild was at the end of a 10-year nonrenewable lease agreement with the commission, which wanted to return the land to active forest management.

The all-volunteer Keeper of the Wild annually takes in about 3,500 animals, ranging from squirrels and raccoons to bobcats and bears, that have been injured or orphaned largely by human actions, rehabilitates them and returns them to the wild.

With an original moving date of Jan. 31, the organization was scrambling to find land when board member and veterinarian Brian King told client Anne DuPre Royall and her 89-year-old mother, Mary-Julia Royall, both of Mount Pleasant, about the situation. The elder Royall owns a 211-acre “tree farm” on Cooler Dairy Road near Walterboro and was interested in helping.

The Royalls and Janet Kinser, founder and director of Keeper of the Wild, agreed on a lease arrangement that would provide about 11 acres, part of which was a former home site, for the nonprofit for $10 a year. Initially, the arrangement was for 100 years, but that may be revised.

Kinser said she was hoping for a longer term lease so that the organization wouldn’t risk investing in buildings that would have to be vacated in 10 years, similar to the situation near St. George.

Besides helping Keeper of the Wild continue helping wildlife, Mary-Julia Royall said that the proposed facility also would provide much-needed oversight for the land, which has been subject to trespassing.

“Someone could put a (moonshine) still on it,” Royall said.

However, there is one major hurdle to this seemingly win-win scenario, namely meeting the conditions of a conservation easement.

Over the years, and even recently, Royall has been approached repeatedly about selling the land, known as Rooty Hill, but she wasn’t interested and wanted it to remain preserved as undeveloped and natural.

“It’s not a chunk of land I bought as an investment,” said Royall. “I could have made a million dollars off of it, but I didn’t want to sell it.”

In December 2011, Royall placed a conservation easement on the land, which had been in her family for nearly two centuries, through the Lowcountry Open Land Trust.

Now the nonprofit must sign off on the lease deal, and its attorney, Barbara Holmes, said they have reservations about the terms of the lease, which she said the trust received two weeks ago.

“I know that everyone has their heart in the right place and everybody wants to find a new home (for Keeper of the Wild) ... but there are also business, property and legal requirements that we have to come to agreement on,” said Holmes.

In the meantime, Kinser said Keeper of the Wild volunteers must move its equipment and other belongings off the St. George property by Aug. 1 while also working with hundreds of orphaned and injured animals this spring. The organization has a pending $12,000 contract with a company to put a metal building on Royalls property.

Kinser also said the organization must finish raising about $100,000, half of which has been met, to build new facilities on the land.

The Royalls, Kinser and Holmes, among others involved, are scheduled to meet about the agreement and easement on Tuesday.