Originally created 04/09/06

Public land is highly coveted



LINCOLNTON, Ga. - When government surveyors fanned out across Lincoln County more than 60 years ago, residents were often reluctant to surrender their land for a dam project.

At prices as low as two dollars per acre, however, the parcels were acquired - either through negotiation or condemnation - for the lake that became known as "Georgia's inland sea."

In the end, the Army Corps of Engineers controlled 156,000 acres along the Savannah River in Georgia and South Carolina for a reservoir, now known as Thurmond Lake, that covers just 72,000 acres.

The fact that the government still owns most of that land is a perennial sore spot for many people, according to Walker Norman, the chairman of the Lincoln County Commission, who wants more public land released for development.

"I'd like to see them resurvey the entire lake, on both sides of the river, and reconsider some things," he said, noting that Lincoln County residents surrendered tens of thousands of acres for the project.

Ironically, Lincoln County is undergoing a renaissance of sorts with the sudden proliferation of pricey subdivisions in areas where the "collar" of corps land is so narrow that private homes are virtually facing the scenic waterfront.

Were it not for the appeal of the lake and the corps lands surrounding it, the high-end housing would not be there, Mr. Norman acknowledged.

But other areas, such as the 2,400-acre Bussey Point peninsula, encompass many more acres than the corps needs to maintain its lakeside buffer, he said.

"When they built the lake, they took a lot more than they needed," he said.

Across the river in McCormick County, S.C., debate continues over whether 10 miles of shoreline could be released to developers John McDill and C. Birge Sigety, who are using political channels in hopes of acquiring 550 public acres that adjoin their private land.

The developers are seeking support from state lawmakers and members of Congress, who ultimately could be asked to sponsor legislation authorizing the release of the site. Unless that happens, though, the corps has no authority to sell off public property because that would be against the law, corps spokesman Billy Birdwell said.

The McCormick County project, known as Petersburg Landing, is being watched closely by officials in other areas, including Mr. Norman.

"If they find some way to do it over there, you can bet we'll be right there, next in line," he said. "We'll be on (Georgia Rep.) Charlie Norwood's doorstep to get the same thing done over here."

Angela Viney, the executive director of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, opposes the Petersburg Landing project for the very reasons Mr. Norman wants it to succeed.

"The problem with all of these requests to let someone have the public's land is that they are precedent-setting," she said. "If we start this for one group, then where do we stop?"

She pointed out that public land can be enjoyed by everyone, but once it's developed privately the public has lost.

"It's the concept that public lands don't really belong to anybody, that it doesn't have a face to it," she said. "But, in reality, it has all our faces on it."

Mr. Norman and others believe, however, that there is ample land along Thurmond Lake to stimulate more economic growth and still preserve plenty of shoreline for the public.

In the meantime, Lincoln County is moving forward with a golf resort and conference center that have been in the planning stages for almost six years - and would involve creative use of corps property for private development that would be open to the public.

The project would encompass about 500 acres of corps land near Elijah Clarke State Park and 100 acres of nearby private land.

"Our project would be all public," said Alana Burke, the executive director of the Lincoln County Development Authority, which is working with the corps and two unidentified private resort development companies.

Because the resort would be open to the public and would not involve selling homes or create "private exclusive use" of public lands, the corps has been somewhat receptive.

"We've had several meetings with the corps, and they have been very helpful," Ms. Burke said. "They've indicated they would be open to doing it, but we have to have our finances in place."

Mr. Norman said the project is getting closer to reality.

"We're not going to brag on it too much," he said. "But we feel better about this project than at any point since its inception."

The same lake that some say has prevented growth is creating a real estate boom of sorts in Lincoln County, where seven new subdivisions fronting on corps waterfront are in the planning or construction stages.

The newest one, Providence Ferry, is being undertaken by Energy Conversion Corp., of Anderson, S.C., and will include lots with six-figure price tags, said Meg Burg, the county's chief tax assessor.

The growth of such housing developments will spawn even more demand for recreation amenities such as the county's proposed golf and conference center, she said.

"If we could get that project built, people could ride on their boats and go up there for dinner or to play golf," she said.

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.