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Charleston Conservation Groups

Huger Keystone tract


Thursday, June 23, 2005 - Last Updated: 7:16 AM 

Keystone tract purchase raises development fears

Parcel's neighbors, environmentalists watch and wait


Of The Post and Courier Staff


HUGER--A company controlled by two of President Bush's top fund-raisers paid $18.9 million for the 4,500-acre Keystone tract inside the Francis Marion National Forest, a move that could ignite another battle over development on the edge of Charleston's metro area.

The Keystone tract is a swampy area of pines and rare orchids in the southeastern corner of the national forest. It's surrounded by national forest and large private plantations. Residents who trace ancestors back to slavery also own small parcels in the area, known locally as Old Joe.

A group called North Pleasant LLC & Vintage Land bought the land from International Paper's real estate arm in February.

North Pleasant's principals include Mercer Reynolds and his brother James, two Republican heavyweights. Mercer Reynolds oversaw the $250 million fundraising effort for George W. Bush's 2004 campaign. Both brothers helped Bush launch his business career in the 1980s.

On Wednesday, North Pleasant's president, Rob Mitchell, described the company's plans as "still in the formative stages." The company may hold the land as an investment, develop it, or sell it off. "We're keeping our options open." Whatever the company does, Mitchell added, "We're very mindful of the environmental sensitivity of that property, and we'll make that a primary consideration in how we proceed."


The sale is part of a national trend: Paper companies across the nation, especially in the Southeast, are unloading vast stands of forest land, often to developers who grow subdivisions instead of trees.

In the Charleston metropolitan area, timber companies sold more than 43,000 acres in the past two years, according to a Post and Courier analysis. Some sales have triggered bitter community debates.

The fight over Watson Hill and Poplar Grove in Dorchester County, for instance, began after MeadWestvaco sold huge tracts west of Charleston. The Poplar Grove development ended in an agreement to conserve a large area, but development plans for Watson Hill generated lawsuits and annexation battles that could take years to sort out.

The Keystone parcel is larger than Daniel Island, and conservation groups are monitoring what happens to it "with intense interest," said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.

"Ecologically, historically and strategically, this is one of the most important pieces of land on the coast of South Carolina," Beach said. "Its fate will determine the fate of tens of thousands of acres in the surrounding area. Its future is too important to be entirely determined by the profit motive of out-of-state investors."

The stakes are higher for residents in the area. For all 68 of his years, Marion Beaufort has lived on eight acres his family bought after the Civil War. He calls his slice of the forest Beaufort Hill, and on Wednesday, a litter of kittens fed on cat food on the porch where he and his family spend their summer days.

"This has been a rural area. To develop the surroundings and bring multimillion-dollar homes here ... that's really upsetting," he said. "This has always been a rural area, a quiet area. We don't lock our doors. When people move, they bring crime right with them. It will kick the wildlife right out of the trees and bushes." Now, he said, "They come right up (and) eat off the bushes."

The name Old Joe comes from storytellers who told of a little bird that lived in the forest. "This area is quiet and rich with history," said Veronica Jenkins, who along with her sister, Pricilla Wright, owns the J&W Convenience Store near at the northern end of the Keystone tract. "We like the rural area. We don't want another Daniel Island."

Not everyone is against development, though. Eddie Morales, owner of Highway 41 Auto Pros, also lives near the Keystone tract and said development would make his property more valuable and generate construction jobs. "It would be good for the community as long as they (newcomers) support the old country stores."


The Keystone tract is inside the Francis Marion National Forest's 258,000-acre "proclamation boundary." The U.S. Forest Service owns most of the land inside this boundary, but private landholders also own significant parcels, and the Keystone tract is one of the largest.

It's also in an area that's growing more attractive to developers.

Five miles south on S.C. Highway 41 are Rivertowne, Dunes West and other large new subdivisions in Mount Pleasant.

To the west, on Clements Ferry Road, developers are planning more homes. Through annexations, the city of Charleston has moved within striking distance. The state Department of Transportation also wants to replace the S.C. Highway 41 bridge over the Wando River with a new and wider one.

Mitchell said his company bought the Keystone tract mainly because of its proximity to the "vibrant" cities of Mount Pleasant and Charleston. That's also the reason for the name of the new company, North Pleasant.

Mitchell also is president of Reynolds Plantation, a 10,000-acre golf resort near Atlanta. Like the Keystone tract, the Reynolds Plantation Golf Resort once was a timber plantation. It now boasts a Ritz-Carlton Lodge and five golf courses. Residents include former congressmen Sam Nunn and Newt Gingrich.

Mercer Reynolds and his brother James have helped Bush in business and politics for more than 25 years. In 1984, Reynolds' oil company, Spectrum 7 Energy Corp., acquired the future president's financially strapped Bush Exploration. Bush and Reynolds were investors in the Texas Rangers baseball team. During the 2000 presidential election campaign, Mercer Reynolds was one of Bush's top fund-raisers. After that election, Bush picked him to serve as ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein. The president reportedly calls Mercer, "Merce."

The Reynolds aren't the only Republicans with links to Bush who own land in the area. Robert Royall, a retired banker and former ambassador to Tanzania under the Bush administration, owns land near Huger.

He said he met with a member of the Reynolds family several months ago, "and they certainly indicated on the front end that it is a large tract that could be developed with many, many units under the zoning in Berkeley County." That would be about three dwellings per acre under present zoning, or about 13,500 homes.

Royall said the best outcome would be for a conservation group to buy the land. A large development, he said, would be "a big mistake for the historic district, the Francis Marion National Forest and the people who already live in that area."



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