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Prince George: Family buys 1,200 acres for preservation

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Property that was once appraised at $70 million for development was sold last week for $4 million in a deal intended to preserve it. The sale of the 1,200 acres between Pawleys Creek and the Waccamaw River at the Prince George tract settled 21 years of speculation, but left one question remaining: the identity of the buyer.

PG Preservation LLC acquired the property from the University of South Carolina Development Foundation. The price included $60,000 for two boat slips on the river. The registered agent for PG Preservation is Paracorp, a professional registry service.

“We don’t know,” said Russ Meekins, executive director of the USC foundation. He only met with Phillip Lammonds, owner of Prince George Sotheby’s International Realty, who represented the buyer.

“They’re a family and they really just aren’t comfortable with the media interest,” Lammonds said. “Their interest is to conserve it, use it recreationally. They like the fact that there are endangered species on it.”

He has realized the need for protecting the undeveloped property since he started working at Prince George 15 years ago. It’s what creates value in the developed portion, Lammonds said.

The USC foundation had approached him about selling its property, but never listed it. About four years ago, Lammonds said, he began looking for a buyer in earnest.

“We had wanted to find a conservation buyer for the property,” said Nancy Cave, director of the Coastal Conservation League’s north coast office. “The USC easement wasn’t very good and they weren’t going to honor it.”

The foundation tried to develop creekfront lots, but wasn’t able to get access from adjacent property. It also tried to sell property west of Highway 17 to the Coastal Montessori Charter School, but that deal was blocked by the threat of a lawsuit from the Prince George Community Association.

The association believes that restrictions that limit the property to conservation and educational use are valid, said Doris Dawson, the current president. Property owners in the residential portion of Prince George were surprised, but pleased by the sale. “We don’t think we’re going to have a problem with it,” she said.

The property was once part of Arcadia Plantation. It was sold to developers then seized by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. when it took over the bank that financed the deal.

The USC foundation acquired the Prince George tract from the FDIC for $10.5 million in 1994. The money came from the private group that created a single-family development on 600 acres. Georgetown County also bid for the property in a partnership with the Melrose Corp. of Hilton Head that included resort development and public beach access.

The town of Pawleys Island annexed the property after Georgetown County balked at approving development plans without public access. That led to a lawsuit and the eventual reduction in the town limits, but the zoning for a gated community approved by the town remained in place.

The FDIC sale to a public entity was premised on a public benefit. The USC foundation drafted plans for research facilities on its property along with an “eco-tourism hotel and conference center.” That was devised by a former foundation director, Meekins said.

His plan for the property was to convert it to cash. “We saw an asset that we couldn’t spend and needs here [in Columbia] that we try to fill,” he said.

Although the foundation had an appraisal that showed the land worth $70 million if developed like the current residential portion of Prince George, Meekins said the foundation knew that wasn’t realistic either.

The state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism holds conservation easements on the wetlands that make up about half of the USC property. The county’s “planned development” zoning also limits what can be built, said Boyd Johnson, the county’s director of Planning and Zoning.

Lammonds said he isn’t sure whether the current zoning and deed restrictions even allow a single-family home on the 1,200 acres, but that didn’t diminish its appeal to the buyers. “It’s a family that really, really loves it,” he said.

“Twelve hundred acres anywhere in South Carolina is universally attractive,” Lammonds said. “Place it on the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean and it’s really attractive.”

“The value is related to what you can do with the property,” Meekins said. Even with the restrictions, he believes that about 600 acres could be developed. “I wanted to stop this myth that Prince George wasn’t developable,” he said.

“Saying it can’t be developed destroys the tax deduction,” he added. “A conservation easement would give them a nice tax deduction.”

According to estimates received by the USC foundation, preservation of two nesting areas for red-cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered species, could earn the new owner up to $1 million through the sale of development credits, Meekins said.

Although the foundation might have gotten more money for the property, “I don’t see any losers here,” Meekins said.

The Coastal Conservation League, which challenged the USC foundation’s efforts to lift development restrictions, will reserve final judgement until it sees what sort of conservation easement the new owner signs, Cave said. But the group is optimistic.

“For the community, keeping this property undeveloped is a very good thing. It will protect water quality and we need to protect open space on the Waccamaw Neck,” Cave said.

Lammonds pointed out the tract is adjacent to 500 acres placed in a conservation easement in 1989 by the Havel family. “There’s no better news for the conservation community,” he said.

One result of the early litigation over the property was an easement granted to Georgetown County that allows a bike path from Highway 17 to Pawleys Creek along the north edge of the former USC property. “We still maintain that,” County Administrator Sel Hemingway said.

With the completion of the latest phase of the Bike the Neck path between Litchfield and Pawleys Island, the county is closer to extending the path south on Highway 17, Hemingway said.

While a Prince George trail wouldn’t provide beach access, it would give the public a glimpse of what 21 years of debate was all about.

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