Monday, October 23, 2017 Blog · News

There’s something about Marvin. Falling on standing. Floating in on golden parachutes. Solving the energy conundrum in one word – competition. No more Frogger on Maybank!

by Dana Beach


Long time, no news summary…  And it’s not because nothing has been going on!  (I’ve just been too distracted to summarize…)

The first item falls under the category of “no good deed goes unpunished.”

South Carolina dedicates comparatively little state funding to land conservation unlike, say, Florida, which persistently deployed around $300 million a year to protect habitat.  But despite the modest size of our financial commitment, we have done a spectacular job of spending money wisely.

Our land conservation vehicle, the S.C. Conservation Bank, was created in 2002.  Funding began to flow, (or trickle), in 2004.  Over its 13-year life, the Bank has spent about $150 million. (Six months of Florida-level spending…)  For the mathematically inclined, this averages about $12 million a year.  With that amount, the program has permanently protected almost 300,000 acres of land, an area larger than the Francis Marion National Forest, at a cost of $526 per acre.

How could this be possible, you might ask, when the least expensive land in the state costs more than $1,000 per acre?  One word…  leverage.  Well, really, a few more words than one.

First, the Bank has often purchased conservation easements, which are available for a fraction of the cost of buying land outright but still provide permanent protection.  Further, the Bank has paid less than appraised value for easements and fee purchases.  And further, again, the land protected has served as a “match” for federal funding sources – a dollar spent by the Bank attracts another dollar from a federal program.  (That’s the leverage part.)

For more statistics on the Conservation Bank, here is their web site.

The project location maps illustrate that the Bank has protected land in every one of the state’s 46 counties, except for Lexington.  (This says something positive, I think, about Lexington Senator Nikki Setzler, who has nonetheless been one of the Bank’s strongest supporters.)

To the good deed part, this article from the State, by Sammy Fretwell, reports that Marvin Davant, who oversaw the Bank since its creation, has announced his retirement following a kerfuffle about transferring some Bank funds to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

The State: Conservation agency chief quits after $3 million budget snafu

The short story is that he didn’t transfer said funds as quickly as some members of the Legislature thought he should.  The details are not unimportant, but the bottom line is that Marvin corrected the error and all should have been well.  But it wasn’t.  My thoughts from the article:

Conservationist Dana Beach said criticisms of Davant and the bank are overblown and part of a larger effort by opponents to close the agency. He and (Bank board member Mike) McShane said Davant has been a key cog in South Carolina’s efforts to protect open space as the state grows.

“This is kindergarten stuff,’’ said Beach, director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “This program is one of the most successful, highly leveraged government programs ever initiated in South Carolina.’’

Marvin’s 13 years of exemplary service deserve more.  The stellar performance of the Bank didn’t happen by accident.  Marvin exhibited energy and creativity that was distinctly and refreshingly un-bureaucratic.  Working in concert with entrepreneurial and largely non-political Conservation Bank boards, Marvin produced results we can all be proud of, and that South Carolinians will be able to enjoy for generations to come.

Thank you, Marvin!  We appreciate your hard work and we celebrate your legacy!

On the less celebratory side of things, this article from the Post and Courier reports that the S.C. Court of Appeals has ruled against the Conservation League and Charleston residents in one of our challenges to the proposed cruise ship terminal at Union Pier.

Post and Courier: Appeals court rules in favor of Charleston ports authority in cruise terminal case

The Court declared that we did not have “standing” to contest the project.  From the article:

Lisa Jones-Turansky, chief conservation officer for the Coastal Conservation League, called the Appeals Court ruling a “shocking decision” and a “blow to government accountability at a time when South Carolinians want an end to insider cronyism.”

She said the groups “are looking at all options” for filing another appeal.

“This … strips property owners and families of their rights to challenge illegal government actions even when it massively increases pollution right next door to them,” Jones-Turansky said.

To Lisa’s point, if citizens don’t have the right to question this massive, publicly funded project a baseball’s throw from their neighborhood, when DO they have that right?  We don’t have to look far for examples of government agencies run amuck costing citizens vast amounts of money and damaging their quality of life. (That’s in the next article, in fact).

The most important thing to know is that our primary challenge to the terminal is still active – the federal appeal.  In that case, we argued that the Corps of Engineers must evaluate the effects of the project on the city as a whole, rather than just the impacts within the confines of Union Pier, and the court agreed.  So the cruise beat goes on.

Regarding state agencies running amuck, the next item pertains to the Santee Cooper/SCANA nuclear meltdown.  There have been so many excellent articles on this subject from the Post and Courier and the State, that I’m going to pick just a couple at random.

The first one, by Avery Wilks with the State, explains that the sale of SCANA to a larger utility would pull the rip cord on $60 million worth of “golden parachutes,” allowing top SCANA management to float gently into whatever Elysium Field utility executives go when they retire.

The State: Who gets $60 million when nuke project fails? SCANA execs with golden parachutes could.

Representative James Smith sums it up well.  From the article:

Total compensation for SCANA’s executive team has nearly doubled over the past 10 years, as company leaders accepted millions in bonuses for their work on the doomed project.

Meanwhile, SCANA has become a takeover target, with its stock price tumbling and several out-of-state utilities looking to expand to South Carolina.

“All these guys are being rewarded for failure,” said state Rep. James Smith, a Richland Democrat who is running for governor and sits on the House panel investigating the scuttled venture. “You fail in building a nuclear plant. You drive up rates that hurt our economy. You destroy a company, and you get a big payoff for doing all of that.”

As Alice said, after passing through the looking glass, “Curiouser and curiouser!”

In truth, the next article is not exactly randomly chosen.  In this op-ed from the Post and Courier, I explain exactly what needs to happen to avoid future cataclysms of this sort.

Post and Courier: Beach op-ed: Electric utilities need free-market reforms

In one word… competition.  Virtually every problem with decision-making on the project is traceable to the monopolistic, protected status of both utilities.  From the op-ed:

This arrangement (state-owned, and legally protected private, monopolies) shifts the risk of poor judgment from the company to the ratepayers. It insulates the management and shareholders, and thereby creates “moral hazard” of the sort that brought us banks that were too big to fail in 2008 — only worse. Unlike the bank “rescue,” the SCANA bailout was inscribed in law a decade ago…

State law must be changed to allow competition among energy producers. This will require more than selling our state owned electric utility, Santee Cooper, to a private company. It also means terminating the legislated monopoly on power production that has been granted to SCANA and other investor owned utilities…

Restructuring the energy sector is the only way we can achieve lower costs, reduced risks and a cleaner environment. Separating energy production from transmission, and establishing competition among power producers, must be the centerpiece of reform.

And now is the time to do it!

And finally, moving in the direction of the microscopic, a great urban area is the sum total of its great neighborhoods, which are the sum total of great streets, which are the sum total of great blocks, sidewalks, intersections…  You get the point.  In this next op-ed, Conservation League Communities and Transportation director, Jason Crowley, makes the case for turning the problem intersection at Maybank Highway and Riverland Drive into an opportunity to make that area safer, more beautiful and more neighborly, (vs. its current condition as a life-threatening drag strip).

Post and Courier: Crowley op-ed: Make Maybank Hwy a ‘complete street’

Jason says:

As for the intersection of Riverland Drive and Maybank, a roundabout would eliminate the dangerous left turn and provide continuous movement through the intersection, easing congestion…

Protected bike lanes along Maybank from Folly Road to Golf View Drive, and a multi-use path through the golf course near the iconic tree canopy to the Gelegotis Bridge, would provide mobility for all forms of transportation along the corridor. Imagine walking or riding your bike to a movie at the Terrace Theater or a show at the Pour House without playing Frogger to cross Maybank Highway. Imagine biking all the way to Wadmalaw Island on a dedicated bike lane!

These enhancements to Maybank Highway are not pie in the sky ideas. In fact, they are tried-and-true concepts that have demonstrated success improving safety for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians and creating a human-scaled street environment that encourages economic activity. Community members are encouraging our elected officials take action to improve the thriving corridor’s safety. The City of Charleston should implement its nearly decade-old Complete Streets Resolution and work with Charleston County to transform Maybank Highway into a boulevard that James Islanders can take pride in.

Amen, Jason!  And these concepts are applicable to neighborhoods up and down the coast.

Have a great week!


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