June 3, 2023

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Clemson Forest Land at Risk with Proposed ‘Enterprise Division’?

ForestIn a 2006 internal report, a task force that studied Clemson University’s vast land holdings recommended that for the approximately 20,000 acres of surrounding forest and farm lands, school officials should “identify some possible short term exchanges and possible large acreage exchanges.”

“Extremely sensitive politically,” the university’s “Asset Stewardship Task Force” noted in its report, a copy of which was obtained by The Nerve last year.

Fast forward eight years later. Some critics now contend that Clemson’s leaders want to divest parts of the Clemson University Experimental Forest – about 17,500 acres surrounding the Clemson campus – and another 2,300 acres of nearby farm land through legislation that would give the Upstate research university sweeping new powers – with less oversight – through the creation of an “enterprise division.”

The forest and farm lands in Pickens, Oconee and Anderson counties represent about 60 percent of the more than 33,000 acres of developed and undeveloped property that the university and its affiliated foundations and other entities own in and out of state, according to records provided recently to The Nerve by the university under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The “Clemson University Enterprise Act” (S. 535), sponsored Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee and the Senate majority leader, passed the Senate last year but was sent to the House after the May 1 crossover date, which meant the House wouldn’t take it up until this year.

Under current state law, proposed land purchases or sales by Clemson have to be approved by the five-member state Budget and Control Board (BCB), chaired by Gov. Nikki Haley – a Clemson graduate.

Peeler’s bill would allow the 13-member Clemson Board of Trustees, through the newly created “enterprise division,” to buy, sell, lease or exchange property without BCB approval and “upon the terms and conditions it considers appropriate.”

The legislation doesn’t require any advance public input about land sales or purchases; it requires only that the Clemson board provide an annual report of sales and purchases to the governor and chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, both of whom are BCB members.

“We are concerned that the Act, as now drafted, could be interpreted to allow the Clemson Forest to be transferred to the Enterprise Division,” Brad Wyche, executive director of the nonprofit environmental organization Upstate Forever, said in a Dec. 6 letter to legislators in Anderson, Greenville, Pickens and Oconee counties. “Once transferred, the division could then attempt to sell some or all of the property.”

The letter, a copy of which was provided last week by Wyche to The Nerve, also was sent to Clemson Board Chairman David Wilkins; Jim Barker, the university’s immediate past president; and Jim Clements, Clemson’s new president who took over the job this month.

In his letter, Wyche, an attorney, asked lawmakers to amend Peeler’s bill to “make it clear that the Act does not apply to the Clemson Forest.”

“The Clemson Forest is a treasure,” Wyche said in the letter, noting that in 1954, the federal government transferred about 27,500 acres to Clemson, about 7,700 acres of which was used in the early 1960s to develop Hartwell Lake, leaving the university with about 19,800 acres.

“This is not just a piece of land,” Wyche said when contacted last week by The Nerve. “This is a major asset of the university and the entire state.”

The “prime directive” of the area is to be a “well-managed, self-sustaining, ecologically healthy, living laboratory, classroom and recreational resource for the benefit of the university, commerce and citizenry of South Carolina,” according to Clemson’s website.

Potential Cash Cow

Wyche told The Nerve that no one from Clemson has responded to his Dec. 6 letter, though Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and one of the co-sponsors of Peeler’s bill, informed him that he would favor an amendment exempting the forest land from the legislation.

Asked if he were concerned that the university would eventually sell forest land – particularly more valuable tracts along Hartwell Lake – for development, Wyche replied, “That’s exactly the concern – that the forest can be perceived as underdeveloped land that needs to be cashed in, and that temptation becomes very strong in difficult budget times.”

An informal group called Friends of the Clemson Forest and Farms has voiced similar concerns about the proposed “enterprise division.”

“Clemson’s Forest and Agriculture lands have been an integral part of the University for nearly 100 years,” according to the group’s website. “These lands belong to the people of South Carolina and should not be subject to disposal by an entity not under direct public oversight.”

The group asks that lawmakers amend Peeler’s bill to exempt Clemson forest and farm land “acquired prior to the year 2005.”

L.D. Reamer, a leader of the group, declined comment when contacted last week by The Nerve, referring questions to Wyche.

The Nerve last week sent written questions to university spokeswoman Cathy Sams seeking comment about whether the university had any plans to sell or exchange any of its forest or farm lands, citing the 2006 internal task force report. She did not respond by publication of this story.

Peeler did not respond to a phone message last week from The Nerve seeking comment on his bill.

Contacted last week, Martin confirmed that he had informed Wyche that he would support an amendment to the bill exempting the university’s Experimental Forest land from the bill, though he noted that neither Barker nor Clemson board members he spoke to recently mentioned plans to sell or exchange part of the land.

“I haven’t heard anything at all that would lead me to remotely believe they are planning something,” he said, adding he didn’t think Clemson officials would be opposed to a proposed amendment exempting the forest land.

Martin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said questions about Clemson’s plans for the forest land largely came up after the bill had made it out of committee and was being debated on the Senate floor. Any amendments dealing with the forest land likely would be initiated on the House side, where the bill now resides, he said.

The bill was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston and chairman of the Higher Education, Tech and Cultural Subcommittee, did not respond to a written message last week from The Nerve seeking comment on the bill.

Rep. B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens and a subcommittee member, told The Nerve when contacted last week that he wasn’t sure if the bill had been referred to a subcommittee, adding, “When it initially came over (to the House), there was some discussion of having a special committee to look at it, but I’ve heard nothing on that.”

Asked about his views on critics’ concerns about the proposed “enterprise division” and Clemson’s forest land, Skelton, a professor emeritus of economics at Clemson, declined to discuss specifics, saying only, “I will address the situation when the bill is taken up.”

In 2004, the Urban Land Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that focuses on land-use issues, created controversy when it recommended that some of Clemson’s forest land along Hartwell Lake be developed for residential and commercial uses.

Secret Report

According to the university’s internal 2006 “Asset Stewardship Task Force” report obtained by The Nerve, the approximately 19,800-acre “land-use” lands adjacent or near the campus have “federal restrictions requiring that it be used for public purposes.”

The report said the designated land “cannot be used for private, residential, commercial or industrial uses,” and that under the deed, the land would revert to the federal government if the public-use restrictions were violated.

“It won’t change restrictions on land-use lands,” then-President Barker said in an April blog post about Peeler’s bill.

But Wyche told The Nerve that the forest land is “not protected,” noting it can be sold or exchanged with approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and that several parcels have been sold or exchanged in recent years for rights-of-way.

In his Dec. 6 letter, Wyche said no part of the forest land should be sold or exchanged “unless all of the following steps are taken”:

  • Clemson faculty, administrators, students and the general public are informed in advance of any proposals and allowed to comment on them;
  • The Clemson Board of Trustees approves the transaction;
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture approves the transaction; and
  • Proceeds of the transactions are used to improve the forest land, in accordance with federal law.

“It needs to be all out in the open,” Wyche told The Nerve.

In its 2006 report, the “Asset Stewardship Task Force” said the university could trade forest land with other property owned by the Clemson University Real Estate Foundation (CUREF), a nonprofit organization dedicated, according to Clemson’s website, to “advance the University through gifts of real estate and property.”

The foundation would “employ or act as (a) developer,” the report said, noting that the university “benefits via CUREF profits from development,” and that the foundation “must be willing to assume this role.”

A goal of the land exchanges is to “shift unrestricted properties” to CUREF or “special purpose entities,” and move “restricted properties” to the university, according to the report.

The nine-member task force that prepared the report was chaired by Bill Smith, a member of Clemson’s Board of Trustees and CEO of Columbia-based Red Rock Developments.

No large portions of the forest lands were identified in the report, which made various recommendations about Clemson-owned property throughout the state, for possible sale or exchange. But the report identified 39 acres in the area that would have to be “addressed” with a proposed redevelopment of a lake-front golf course.

“Very sensitive politically – need to have information together before we have any public discussion,” the report said.

Whether there will be any public discussion about the future of Clemson’s forest and farm lands remains to be seen.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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