Auditors lash SC land conservation fund for poor management

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- A fund that buys land to protect it from development is South Carolina was given a poor review in an audit released as lawmakers debate whether to continue its work.

The report from the Legislative Audit Council found the South Carolina Conservation Bank does not require sufficient proof that the land it buys or obtains a conservation easement for is in danger of development and fails to assure public access to the land it purchases with public money.

The audit also found the bank isn't careful enough in determining if the land is worth the price.

The bank has conserved nearly 300,000 acres since 2004 including landmarks like Morris Island and the Angel Oak on Johns Island. But the law authorizing it ends in 2018. A bill has been introduced to give the bank five more years, but the audit may make it tougher to pass.

The audit suggests merging the bank into the Department of Natural Resources -- an idea that supporters of the bank say could create a conflict of interest since DNR sometimes gets grants to buy property to conserve.

In a written response to the audit, Conservation Bank director Marvin Davant said the law doesn't require public access to land the agency buys and landowners who offer easements agreeing to not develop the land don't want the public on it either.

In addition, sometimes the land is better off as undisturbed wildlife habitat, Davant wrote.

The bank disagreed with the methods the audit used to determine it overpaid for land and with the conclusion the agency should do more to determine if property is under threat of development.

"Considering that South Carolina is a small State and that we have gained over 1 million people in the last 25 years, it is not beyond consideration that most properties in this State are subject to some level of development threat," Davant wrote.

The Conservation Bank is primarily funded by a 25-cent fee on each deed recorded in South Carolina.

Lawmakers critical of the bank said it benefits wealthy owners with little benefit to the public. They also said the bank has without permission overgrown its original purpose to buy land to protect river bases around Charleston and the rest of the Lowcountry.