Acquisition of Vaught Tract in Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve sets precedent

A large gap in Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve on the outskirts of Myrtle Beach has been filled with the long-desired acquisition of a piece of old Horry County family land known as the Vaught Tract.

The 754-acre addition brings the preserve, which holds 23 of the mysterious wetlands known as Carolina Bays, to 10,444 acres.

The addition is being hailed as a precedent in the way it was acquired. The new parcel was donated as a wetlands mitigation bank, meaning credits can be bought from it by private owners, businesses or government agencies to compensate for wetlands they must destroy when they build something.

In Horry County’s wetlands-rich environment, the new parcel is significant. One of its first credits, awaiting federal approval, would allow for the delayed four-laning of Glenns Bay Road.

“It’s a great accomplishment, certainly precedent-setting,” said Campbell Coxe of Darlington, who chairs the state’s Heritage Trust Advisory Board.

“It’s a huge deal for Horry County, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

The state’s residents got more preserved green space “next to a very urban area” without expense to the taxpayers, and the bank will make it possible for some development to proceed.

Horry County’s legislative delegation must approve any additions to heritage trust preserves, and at times members have been reluctant because of the loss of property tax money.

In this case, it all went smoothly.

“Speaking on behalf of the entire Horry County legislative delegation, this is a win for the people of South Carolina and Horry County,” said state Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Surfside Beach, who chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and was instrumental in swaying the delegation’s vote.

“Not only are we adding to the already significant Lewis Ocean Bay with easements into perpetuity, but it also allows the sale of much-needed mitigation credits to local developers,” Hardwick said.

Conservationists are pleased with the outcome although they often criticize mitigation as nothing more than a pathway to destroy wetlands elsewhere.

“It’s wonderful, we were delighted to hear about it,” said Dana Beach, director of the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League. The league was involved in the plans for the Carolina Bays Parkway and in ensuring that the road did not disturb the preserve, as well as in negotiating for a smaller inholding in 2005 that compensated for building an unapproved interchange to the parkway.

“Lewis Ocean Bay is just one of the most extremely important ecological features of South Carolina, so this addition is just wonderfully important for the continued function of that property and all the animals and plants that live there,” Beach said.

The arrangement is an example of the kind of mitigation that should be insisted on, he said. The Lewis Ocean Bay addition is almost on par with the preservation of most of Sandy Island in Georgetown County to compensate for wetlands damage when S.C. 22 was built, he said.

“It’s just a great outcome,” Beach said.

“That is great news,” said Bo Ives, chair of the Sierra Club Winyah Group and president of the Carolina Forest Homeowners Association.

The state Department of Natural Resources supervises the heritage trust preserves. The DNR board must approve any additions, which are recommended by the Heritage Trust Board. The state Budget and Control Board and Joint Bond Review Committee must also approve. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must approve a mitigation bank and how it is run. It’s an involved and lengthy process and in this case the agencies worked together to get it done.

“This agency is committed to partnering with other state and federal agencies along with other non-governmental organizations,” said DNR Director Alvin Taylor. “The Vaught Tract is a prime example of working together to enhance and preserve the natural resources of our state.”

The driving force behind the preserve addition was Randy Wilgis of Camden, president of Environmental Banc and Exchange LLC. The company is Maryland-based and specializes in wetlands mitigation banks in the Eastern states.

Wilgis said he was eyeing the Vaught tract since 2000 with the idea of using it as a bank and giving it to the preserve.

“This is what it should be, it should be part of the heritage preserve,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s anything more special than a Carolina bay,” he said. Wilgis said his father-in-law’s law partner was Henry Savage, who wrote an often-quoted book on Carolina bays.

The Vaught family declined to sell to Wilgis though. DNR had also been unsuccessful after trying since the preserve was formed in 1989 to buy the land from the Vaughts.

In 2006, the Vaughts sold the property for likely development to a group of investors in Florence, but the land ended up in bankruptcy court and Wilgis bought it, he said.

“We had an opportunity to fill in a big gap in a beautiful natural resource in that area,” he said. But the firm also hopes to make money. He declined to talk specifics, but the company’s Corps of Engineers filing says it has 219 credits for freshwater wetlands preservation and 588 for wetlands enhancement.

At a recent Horry County Council Infrastructure and Regulation Committee meeting, members were told it costs at least $8,000 for a mitigation credit in today’s market.

The company filed a new LLC called EBX Waccamaw for the Lewis Ocean Bay project. The land is already given to the preserve, but the agreement requires the company to manage it. EBX will pay for the work and do it as soon as feasible, Wilgis said. Some mitigation banks work on the land as money is received for credits.

The Corps of Engineers inspects banks every year for the work that has been done and releases an amount of credits that are available based on that, Wilgis said.

For an applicant who needs permission to alter wetlands, the amount of credits needed is based on the type of wetland and the amount of destruction. The credit amount needed is set by the Corps of Engineers. In the last few years, most of the available credits in the area have been used up. Land developers who need credits must buy them in the same watershed where the damage is to take place, which limits the availability.

Wilgis said he has two applications filed with the Corps for people who need credits. He confirmed one of them is for the Glenns Bay Road project. The widening of the road is to be paid for with a special county sales tax but has been on hold awaiting mitigation.

The EBX approval took 18 months, “record time for South Carolina,” and that’s because the project had so much support from DNR and other agencies and officials, Wilgis said.

“This project would not have occurred without the support and guidance of Bob Perry” and the Horry County delegation, he said.

Perry, director of environmental programs at DNR, said it was all Wilgis’ idea.

The agency is pleased not just because of the addition but because of what it means for management of the land, Perry said. The Vaught Tract contains several bays, some of which overlap into the old preserve boundary, so that made it hard to maintain the property, he said. Part of Lewis Ocean Bay itself was also on the Vaught tract.

Also, the Vaught Tract was not burned off to keep the property in its natural state, and that affected the adjacent properties in addition to creating underbrush buildup that can foster a wildfire.

EBX’s management plan calls for building firebreaks in the Vaught Tract and burning off the underbrush with slow, controlled fires as weather and time permits. Firebreak work has already started, Wilgis said.

Perry said some of the tract, as well as the original preserve, was burned in the recent forest fire.

In their natural states, these forests and wetlands were burned off regularly by lightning strikes, which helps preserve the wetland ecology and provide places for rare plants and animals to live.

Lewis Ocean Bay is one of the few places where Venus’ flytraps grow in the wild. It also has wild orchids and other rare plants and is a major haven for black bears and red-cockaded woodpeckers. The National Audubon Society has designated it as a place of birding significance.

Sometimes in the past, complaints from residents have delayed burning in the preserve, and Perry said DNR is aware of its need to continue educating the public on the need for the burning and how it helps prevent wildfires.

Ives said many Carolina Forest residents understand that controlled burning of the forests is beneficial, though others may not and may complain of the smoke.

Wilgis said if it’s done right, it produces little smoke and fire and will not get out of control.

“It’s a low-intensity burn, it’s not going to be a forest fire,” he said.

Wilgis said his company is looking for other bank projects that can add to existing conservation land.

“This is a model for mitigation going forward,” he said.