Rezoning threatens rural life

By Bill McClanahan
from eco-logic, March 2002 issue

When my wife and I retired, we finally realized our lifelong dream: to have a farm where we can raise horses and hay and nurture any critter that happens to be passing by. We were ready because our only big debt, our land, was also our greatest asset.

Then downzoning came along -- "smart growth." Suddenly, we are painfully aware that our life savings, the equity in our land, is at risk. Richland County Council is finalizing new zoning amendments to implement the Town and Country plan that place our only investment, our farm, squarely in a preservation area.

Here and in other counties, non-profit groups such as the Palmetto Conservation Foundation, Sierra Club and Coastal Conservation League are helping craft zoning laws that can rob our heirs of their inheritance and rob us and our friends of our rights. These groups want our land, or at least control of it, in the name of conservation, and smart growth county councils such as the ones in Richland and in Charleston are working hard to give it to them.

Downzoned land has no real value, no investment potential. It is as it sounds -- zoned to a status below defined zoning. My wife and I are lucky. We retired. Many rural property owners have only their land as their 401(K).

The South Carolina Legislature has been considering a bill proposed by Rep. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, called the Conservation Bank Act, which will take about $10 million every year for 10 years from our state funds and give it to the non-profit groups to buy rights or title to our downzoned land cheaply. Once acquired, the land will belong to these private organizations, even though the taxpayers paid for it, and it can be sold or developed by them, with a simple majority vote of the Conservation Bank Board, when it determines the land no longer exhibits the characteristics that qualified it for acquisition.

The money from this bill is going to take what little hope is left from struggling rural families who are fighting "smart" growth and dash it on the rocks of the nearest preservation area. Ten years from now, when it's all over and everything has been "conserved," most country folk will be gone, and their land still may well have been developed.

To quiet opposition, proponents amended the bill to say that downzoned land shouldn't be targeted for three years unless the owner agrees in writing to give up earlier. But no one is considering what it's like to try to make a living on land that hasn't had any rain for years or to pay for sick children without health insurance. Downzoned land presents no options, and three years of tough times will create many "willing sellers."

Furthermore, land preservation is big business. The Nature Conservancy, which is lobbying this issue heavily, reported revenues of more than $784 million to the secretary of state's office, with expenditures of $393 million.

Unlike them, the people I am speaking of can't afford high-dollar lobbyists. They are team players, though, who do what's right. They love their God, their families, their land and each other. They fight wars. I am one of them.

And even now, they're only asking for fairness, not favors. Our state is in dire financial straits. How many programs could $10 million save at the Department of Mental Health? How many troopers could we hire? South Carolina needs to allow the rural property owners to continue to be the stewards of their land, as they have been for generations, and let the private "land protection" groups raise their own money and cut their own deals, without the help of stifling zoning restrictions. That will be fair, and it is the financially responsible thing to do.


Mr. McClanahan is the owner of Homestead Farms in Lower Richland County. He and his wife, Kay, are cofounders of the Richland Landowners Association, a grass-roots organization dedicated to property rights issues.


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