23, 2005 - Last Updated: 7:16 AM
Keystone tract purchase raises
neighbors, environmentalists watch and wait
BY TONY BARTELME AND YVONNE WENGER
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
"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
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
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,
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."