The state’s long beleaguered Conservation Bank has been granted a new lease on life with surprisingly strong support from the Legislature. The bank will continue to operate for another five years under the extension, signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley last week. And with the current upturn in state revenues, the bank actually will have some funding this year to continue its good work.
The bank expects to get as much as $9 million this year, enabling it to meet its obligations from previous years, when its funding was sharply cut.
Indeed, the bank could hardly keep its lights on during the state’s recent budget difficulties. That’s because its funding, derived from the sale of documentary stamps used in registering land purchases, is zeroed out when across-the-board budget cuts are required. It is the only agency in state government that is singled out for such harsh treatment.
Nevertheless, during its 10-year history the bank has preserved more than 150,000 acres by purchase and through conservation easements. And it has 47 applications pending for another 25,000 acres.
In the Lowcountry, the bank played an essential role in the protection of Morris Island and the purchase of park land at Bacon’s Bridge in Dorchester County. It helped make possible the compromise that limited development at Poplar Grove.
And it provided the model for Charleston County’s successful greenbelt bank.
This year, legislative advocates of the bank concentrated on gaining approval for its reauthorization. The overwhelming support for that bill says that awareness of the bank’s value to the state has substantially grown.
In the Senate, give credit to Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, who has been instrumental in keeping the bank operational during the lean years.
When legislators question whether conservation is a core function of government, Sen. Campsen cites Article XII of the state constitution that mandates support for “the conservation of its natural resources.”
The Conservation Bank seeks applications from landowners, virtually all of whom are willing to contribute a portion of their land’s value so that it can be kept from development in perpetuity.
With a staff of two, the Conservation Bank is the state’s smallest agency. It works closely with a citizen board to decide how best to use its limited funding, concentrating on the preservation of historic sites, valuable habitat and defining natural landscapes.
Removing the poison pill budget provision will be a challenge for another year.
The strong support for the reauthorization of the bank this year encourages the hope that its legislative backers can accomplish that goal before the bank again faces another budget threat.