October 13, 2013

Editorial | Prince George tract belongs to the public

After 20 years of failing to keep its word to the people of Georgetown County to create public access and an environmental center on part of what is known as the Prince George tract near Pawleys Island, the state’s flagship university now proposes to wash its hands of the entire matter and sell the land for development.

After 20 years of failing to keep its word to the people of Georgetown County to create public access and an environmental center on part of what is known as the Prince George tract near Pawleys Island, the state’s flagship university now proposes to wash its hands of the entire matter and sell the land for development.

Not so fast.

The Prince George issue is probably the most divisive that the county faced in modern history. It was wrenching, fraught with fierce politics and emotion, elections and lawsuits, and lasted for years. And in the end, the people of the county were cheated out of an expected public access to the ocean and river by their own state’s university.

If the university wants to reopen those wounds in an attempt to sell the land for development, it is likely to be hit with a storm of lawsuits and opposition unlike any it has faced. The rumbling has already begun on how to stop this and lawyers are being consulted.

First of all, the property was obtained under a federal regulation requiring that it be primarily for public use. An attempt to shed the conservation easement on it to sell it could, and probably should, result in a federal lawsuit.

Let’s review how we got to where we are.

In 1985, Vanderbilt heiress Lucille Pate sold 1,934 acres north of DeBordieu for $17.6 million to developers who organized as Prince George Joint Venture. They took out a $17.5 million mortgage on it with a Texas savings and loan. Plans called for a massive project including nearly 3,000 homes, three golf courses and a convention hotel.

While development stalled, the savings and loan failed and was taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which in 1991 filed for foreclosure on Prince George. The agency said $23 million was owed in interest and penalties, in addition to the principal.

The developers appealed, sought a buyer and extensions of their permits, but the FDIC foreclosed in 1992 and offered to sell the mortgage. A former state representative from Pawleys Island began a push for the state to buy it as a park. Supporters said more public access is needed in the area, especially with the construction of more gated communities.

The property was sold at the courthouse steps in October of 1992. The FDIC bought it for $12 million and set another auction, at which no one bid.

The agency said in January of 1993 that it must first offer the land to government agencies and nonprofit groups for conservation, recreation or education. The agency was complying with a 1990 law regarding coastal barrier property that was the subject of foreclosure.

The state park idea gained new life, but the state had no money for it. The state made an offer of $1.5 million down, with the rest to be financed. The S.C. Waterfowl Association offered to pay the asking price to make the property a wildlife refuge.

The county, citing public demand, said it would try to obtain the property for a park, and called a referendum on a $12 million bond issue. The question failed miserably, 3-1, but the county vowed to continue by other means. The county sought developers to finance the project in exchange for some of the land, and they partnered with Melrose Co. of Hilton Head Island.

At the same time, USC announced it wanted the land for an ecology education center. The USC Development Foundation partnered with a group partly composed of DeBordieu developers. This seemed odd to many local residents, since USC already had a marine lab eight miles south at the Belle W. Baruch Foundation land.

USC really, really needed the property, said Jim Rex, director of the development foundation at the time. It had many attractions, he said.

Among other things, “we are real interested at the university in this whole aspect of ecotourism,” Rex told a public gathering.

They bid $10.5 million, while the county group bid $5.7 million. The waterfowl group did not bid. The Prince George developers put up the money, and it cost the university nothing except to later turn over about a third of the land to the developers.

That was in December of 1993. USC has done nothing since, despite forming a committee to help plan its facility, saying every time it was asked that it was continuing to study it.

In its plan and public statements, USC promised public access. But the lack of action caused bitterness among many county residents who believed the state’s namesake university acted at the behest of influential donors and board members to prevent meaningful public access to land that was near gated communities.

USC’s Development Foundation went so far as to ask the town of Pawleys Island to annex the property, which was across the creek from the town, to avoid the county’s demand for the two-acre beach access. The town did so, drawing a lawsuit from the county and some aggrieved residents.

Town residents later petitioned for a referendum to de-annex the property, which passed by a wide margin.

This newspaper covered the issue for years as the university continued to stall, using one excuse after the other. The plan isn’t finished yet. It isn’t surveyed yet. There is no money. Somebody is doing research there and we can’t disturb it.

In 1997, our story was, “Pricey Prince George divisive; university plans for development in limbo.” In 2003, it was “The promise unkept,” how the university had done nothing after 10 years, while still saying it intended to do something, sometime, it still did not know what.

Lifting the conservation easement on the land could be just the beginning of USC’s problems if it tries to sell for development now. That move would have to go through the planning commission, public hearings, and county council, steps inviting loud opposition all the way. It’s possible a zoning change could be refused.

Yes, it’s tempting to a cash-strapped public university to offer a beautiful, undeveloped stretch of coastal land for sale. But this land is the public’s, like it or not. If USC doesn’t want to deal with it any more, the university should turn it over to the county, the state parks or a nonprofit group that will take proper care of it and perhaps, we can hope, finally keep that promise to the people of Georgetown County.

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