Originally created 01/19/98

Lakeside view



MCCORMICK, S.C. -- Beyond the lapping waters that define one of the nation's most-visited public lakes, a controversy is brewing over who will control 900 acres between a popular state park and a private resort.

Savannah Lakes Village, owned by Arkansas-based Cooper Communities, beckons visitors who want to golf or just retire near Thurmond Lake. In 1986, the company acquired 3,159 acres of public land from which today's popular resort was carved.

Last fall, the company launched an effort to expand. Cooper wants the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to sell an additional 900 acres near Hickory Knob State Park.

The company's consultant, John McAllister, has spent months visiting everyone from the assistant secretary of the Army to U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond to lobby for a smooth transaction.

But there are snags.

Col. Grant Smith, commander of the corps' Savannah District, said in a recent letter to Mr. McAllister that the corps cannot relinquish public lands to private developers.

Citing a 1986 federal law that made wildlife management land a "necessary" purpose of the Thurmond project, Col. Smith wrote that "these lands cannot be excessed absent new legislation," referring to the legal process by which federal property can be declared surplus or excess.

Col. Smith also noted that the land has been leased to the state of South Carolina for use as a public wildlife management area since 1953. Currently, the parcel houses a valuable quail habitat pilot project.

Mr. McAllister believes a deal can be struck. It just takes time.

"We're very patient people, and the expansion of this project is a key to insuring the economic survival of one of the smallest and poorest counties in South Carolina," he said.

Federal laws banning the transfer of public lands won't necessarily scuttle the plan, he said.

"We don't feel that's insurmountable, and we're moving full speed ahead."

One option is to convince Congress to pass a new law authorizing the transfer. At least one South Carolina delegation member, U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings, is on record supporting the idea.

"They've asked us to do whatever we can do," said Maury Lane, press secretary for Mr. Hollings. "We've written to the Corps of Engineers for assistance in obtaining that 900 acres."

The corps already has more land than it needs, Mr. McAllister said.

"They own 35 percent of McCormick County, they're the largest property owners," he said. "As a result of that, if you have public ownership of land, you're going to have a lot of poor people. You can't build your tax base, your schools are substandard and you're condemned to a life of poverty."

Quail Unlimited, which has its national headquarters in South Carolina, opposes the proposal, said Rocky Evans, the group's executive vice president, who has written South Carolina Gov. David Beasley about the project.

"If this sale is allowed to materialize, once again, the general public and wildlife will be the real losers," he wrote.

Mr. Evans noted that Savannah Lakes paid only $1,200 an acre for the public lands it acquired in the 1980s. Some lakefront parcels now sell for more than $100,000 an acre, he said. "Anyone would like to have a deal like that."

Though Mr. Beasley is widely known for his aggressive economic development practices, he's also respected for his stance on preserving public lands, said Gary Karr, Mr. Beasley's press secretary.

Currently, however, the governor hasn't become involved in the Savannah lakes issue and hasn't yet responded to concerns from Quail Unlimited and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, he said.

Mr. McAllister said he is working diligently to make the deal work.

"Certainly, the Corps of Engineers is not in the business of releasing property," he said. "They weren't in that business in 1989 either, but the property was released."

Certainly, the Corps of Engineers is not in the business of releasing property. They weren't in that business in 1989 either, but the property was released.John McAllister,

consultant for Savannah

Lakes Village