Monday, November 27, 2017 Blog

The two most important conservation groups you’ve never heard of. The expanding greenbelt. Marsh transit in Cape Romain. Hardeeville on steroids. Two centuries to fix the Battery? How to fix democracy.

by Dana Beach


The Thanksgiving weekend was glorious in every way.  The rainy, cool day of thanks was perfect for running.  Charleston’s Marc Embler set a state record in Charleston’s Turkey Day 5-kilometer race, in the “antique” category, (in which I was an “also ran”), with a blistering 17:43 time.  It was also ideal for leisurely dining, without the anxiety of cleaning up in time for an afternoon outing.

We took our Thanksgiving field trip to Bulls Island on Friday.  On the way to Garris Landing, the gateway to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, we passed the “White Tract.”  As this article by Bo Petersen with the Post and Courier reports, the 85-acre property has been acquired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and will be added to the refuge.

Post and Courier: First inland South Carolina tract purchased in Cape Romain effort to save habitat as seas rise

The importance of the White tract is that:

  1. It is a terrible place for a development and, consequently, has been the subject of more than a decade of legal and political combat, triggered when the town of Awendaw annexed the property in order to undermine Charleston County’s agricultural zoning.
  2. It is the first property added to the Refuge with the explicit goal of providing an avenue for the marsh to migrate inland as sea level rises.
  3. The transaction was executed by the most important conservation group you’ve never heard of – the New York-based Open Space Institute (OSI).

As the article notes, the White Tract is not the only property OSI has snatched from the precipice.  In this area alone, they have also protected:  the largest inholding in the Francis Marion National Forest – almost 7,000 acres of Fairlawn Plantation – similarly threatened with development; a beautiful marsh island just across the waterway from McClellanville; and, 340 acres around the historic St. James Santee brick church.  These places are among the most strategic, historic and magnificent in the Southeast.

So… on Thanksgiving weekend, I was thankful for OSI!  To learn more, here is their website.

(I was also thankful that this sanderling has such a beautiful place to spend the winter, on Bulls Island.)

This next piece, an editorial from the Post and Courier, applauds the Fairlawn success, along with another gigantic, 11,000-acre conservation victory, executed by yet another excellent group you may have never heard of – the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust.

Post and Courier: Editorial: Two conservation coups for the Lowcountry

Lord Berkeley, using S.C. Conservation Bank funds, purchased an easement on Oakland Plantation, a critical building block of the tri-county greenbelt.  From the editorial:

The regional greenbelt is growing. The addition of about 17 square miles of conservation land in Berkeley County near Pineville will provide a key link in buffering development on the northern side of Lake Moultrie, protect the Santee River watershed, preserve Revolutionary War sites, and the tomb of Revolutionary War hero Gen. Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion.

The value of the deal far exceeds the $3.6 million it took to secure the properties — altogether about 11,000 acres between the Francis Marion National Forest and the Santee National Wildlife Refuge — for the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust.

The Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust is another organization to be thankful for!

This land conservation work, carried out parcel-by-parcel by half a dozen land trusts over the past three decades, has produced an outcome few people imagined was possible in the late 1980s.  Today more than 1.2 million acres on the South Carolina coast have been permanently protected, and another quarter million acres (in Charleston and Beaufort counties) have been secured by stronger zoning and more rational infrastructure policies (aka “urban growth boundaries”).

For a picture of the alternative – the wholesale transformation of the Lowcountry – this next article from the Island Packet describes another gigantic property, but in this case one that is slated for 9,500 houses and 1.5 million square feet of stores and offices.

Island Packet: First Margaritaville, now this. Plans made for 20K-person community along U.S. 278.

The East Argent tract, timberland formerly owned by Union Camp, was approved for development before derailing in 2008, when subprime mortgages pricked the housing bubble.  Today it’s back on track.  From the article:

A giant residential and commercial development planned for Hardeeville has the potential to bring in more than 20,000 new residents — more than quadrupling the city’s current population.

The city announced earlier this week preliminary details for the new East Argent community, a project expected to break ground next year on a roughly 7,300-acre plot west of Argent Boulevard and north of U.S. 278, near the northern section of Sun City’s age-restricted community.

On top of that, Jimmy Buffett has apparently docked in Hardeeville.  This next piece, from Bluffton Today, reports on a presentation by the developers of Latitude Margaritaville, a “Jimmy Buffett themed community” for mature adults 55 years and older. (Although it is debatable that someone who likes margaritas can be called “mature”).  The 2,700-acre property is approved for 3,000 houses and 290,000 square feet of stores.  Sponge cake is served in the real estate office.  (Just kidding, I hope.)

Bluffton Today: Sun City gets a glimpse at Latitude Margaritaville Hilton Head plans

This part of the Lowcountry, along the Jasper/Beaufort county border between the Savannah and Broad rivers, is the most important area for land conservation on the coast.  (The area around the new Volvo plant, near Four Hole Swamp, is in second place.)

With all of these new folks flooding the coast, it’s even more important to focus on our biggest unaddressed problem – flooding.  This next piece is a book review from the New York Times.  “The Water Will Come” explores a reality that those of us who live on the South Carolina coast already understand: Sea level is rising and storms are becoming more frequent (e.g. Irma, Matthew, the rain bomb, king tides…).

New York Times: Review: Not if the seas rise, but when and how high

It also addresses another perplexing reality: We seem unable to act quickly and decisively, before things become too expensive to fix.  (Not to mention acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while there is still some time left.)  Why is this?

From the review:

Unfortunately, human beings are uniquely ill-suited to prepare for disasters they cannot sense or see. “We have evolved to defend ourselves from a guy with a knife or an animal with big teeth,” Goodell writes, “but we are not wired to make decisions about barely perceptible threats that gradually accelerate over time.”

So we stick our heads in the sand. Until the sand disappears, anyway. (Think Captain Sams Spit.)

Like the rest of America, South Carolinians can be a stubborn lot (only more so, I think).  In the face of abundant evidence, we deny the existence of serious problems, and when they become incontestable, we rationalize why they can’t be solved.  I won’t mention recent examples of this behavior, (although one could consider a certain power plant in Jenkinsville), but Post and Courier columnist Steve Bailey points out that Charleston is currently struggling with another episode of denial and political paralysis, as we witness one flood after another, and yet steadfastly refuse to take the steps necessary to avert future damage.

Post and Courier: Bailey op-ed: While we were sleeping, tides and costs kept rising

Says Steve:

At the current rate of spending, the city is on pace to complete its plans to control flooding in 240 years, give or take a generation.

This according to the city’s own numbers. In the 30 years from 1990 to 2020, about $251 million in city, state and federal funds have been allocated for drainage projects big and small. That works out to $8.3 million a year over three decades.

Steve points out that over the 40 years of Joe Riley’s tenure as mayor, impressive work was done building new civic structures, but investment in flood control was woefully inadequate.

Over the next quarter century, we griped about ‘’nuisance flooding,’’ but life was good and mostly dry. Joe Riley presided over a grand Charleston Renaissance, building the future on the past. He understood well that public spending would encourage private spending. He primed the pump with Charleston Place, and followed that with the aquarium, Waterfront Park, a baseball park, the Gaillard Center and more. The city boomed.

And he isn’t done yet: In retirement, Riley is continuing to build monuments (and his legacy) with a $75 million International African American Museum on Gadsden Wharf.

We built them, and they came. No one, though, came to see the stormwater drains or the pump stations, and we built far too few of them. Thirty-three years after drawing up a drainage plan, only 37 percent of the improvements have been done or are underway — and the needs just keep growing. There is no Joseph P. Riley Jr. Seawall.

It is true that Mayor Riley was a particularly strong leader.  It is also true that during his tenure there were city councils, chambers of commerce, regional development alliances and others whose financial survival was tied to the physical survival of the city.

But these same business and civic leaders not only said nothing while sea level rose four inches and flooding worsened, some of them actively suppressed public discussion about the threat.

According to Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith with the Post and Courier:

In 1984, Charleston hosted a national symposium on the effects of rising seas. The Environmental Protection Agency had just done a study about the physical and economic impacts of the problem in Charleston and Galveston, Texas. And Charleston was a natural choice for the region’s leaders to talk about the issue.

But shortly before the symposium, city developers pressured the meeting’s sponsors to cancel the event. They feared that highlighting the EPA’s study would hurt commercial and residential development, according to an account published that year by coastal experts Margaret Davidson and Tim Kana.

The meeting was held as planned but the Charleston area “demonstrated the strongest resistance to being concerned about impacts associated with sea rise,” Davidson and Kana wrote in the book, Societal Responses to Regional Climactic Change. 

Post and Courier: Some leaders say the time is now to act to save Charleston from rising seas, though uncertain about funding.

The lesson from Charleston is that strong leadership can be beneficial, but it is dangerous when it leads to civic passivity and deference.  A new citizens group called Groundswell, dedicated to action on flooding, may change that.  Groundswell is a great example of the type of decentralized civic association Alexis de Tocqueville felt represented the best hope for America.  From his “Democracy in America”:

Democracy doesn’t give people the most competent government.  But it does what the most competent government is often powerless to do.  It spreads throughout the entire social body a restless activity, a superabundant strength, an energy that never exists without it.

Speaking of which, last week I reported on a conference at Oberlin College called “The State of American Democracy.”  One of the most compelling speakers was New York Times journalist and author Timothy Egan.  In this Post and Courier op-ed, he proposes a few basic changes to strengthen American democracy.

Post and Courier: Egan op-ed: Civic education needed to strengthen American democracy

One of the most interesting and, I suspect, potentially controversial, is a requirement that voters take the same test immigrants must take before becoming American citizens.  Although I am aware that nefarious “literacy tests” were used to deny black citizens the right to vote, it strikes me that requiring voters to know, for example, the three branches of government is entirely reasonable and potentially beneficial.

And it’s important to note that Mr. Egan calls not only for a test, but also for strengthening our anemic civics curriculum, which has been displaced by an over-emphasis on testing and career-related education (vs. citizenship).

From the op-ed:

Suppose we treated citizenship like getting a driver’s license. People would have to pass a simple test on American values, history and geography before they were allowed to have a say in the system. We do that for immigrants, and 97 percent of them pass, according to one study.

Yet one in three Americans fail the immigrant citizenship test. This is not an elitist barrier. The test includes questions like, “What major event happened on 9/11?” and “What ocean is on the West Coast of the United States?”

One reason that public schools were established across the land was to produce an informed citizenry. And up until the 1960s, it was common for students to take three separate courses in civics and government before they got out of high school.

Now only a handful of states require proficiency in civics as a condition of high school graduation. Students are hungry, in this turbulent era, for discussion of politics and government. But the educators are failing them. Civics has fallen to the side, in part because of the standardized test mania.

According to this report from Live 5 News, residents of Williamsburg County are getting a crash course in citizenship, and environmental permitting, with the proposal to build a limestone quarry near Andrews (the childhood home of Chris Rock and Chubby Checker!).

Live 5 News: Coastal Conservation League working with Williamsburg community in effort to stop quarry

The proposal is being extensively vetted by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the county, and the public meetings and hearings have been packed.  Concerns include the impact of the quarry on the roads, noise from the mining operations, dust from blasting and transport, and effects on the nearby Black River, one of the nation’s ecological treasures.

Our North Coast Office Director, Erin Pate, has been participating in the meetings and working with the community surrounding the site.  From the article:

“I think if we can figure out if there are damaging long term impacts to the environment that will… stop the quarry,” said Erin Pate, the director of the North Coast Office of the Coastal Conservation League. “Our lawyer (and our technical experts are) helping us evaluate the application and look for information that might help us fight the case. We are not planning a lawsuit at this time. We would never take it completely off the table but that is not in our immediate plan.”

The final thing I was thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend was citizenship.  May it grow and flourish throughout the Lowcountry!

Have a great week!


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