‘Smart-Growth’ Plan Riles Black Farmers

By John Berlau


Posted on Freedom Advocates on August 10, 2003

Summary:  After being freed from slavery in the 1860s, Joe Neal’s great-grandfather bought 75 acres of wooded land and turned it into a fertile farmland that has been managed by Neal’s family for three generations. But, if Sustainable Development/Smart Growth planners get their way, Neal and his neighbors will lose their heritage in the name of “the environment”. In this Insight story by John Berlau, you will see how the posterity of slavery has long fought for its freedom and rights, but today are faced with threats to their livelihood and property that that are greater than anything they’ve faced from segregationist politicians.

With the Sierra Club, and its government and non-government organization partners, being referred to as a “chapter of the KKK”, Smart Growth may be threatening the rights of these citizens, but could ultimately change the political landscape of South Carolina. Santa Cruz residents will find an uncanny similarity between the Town and Country Plan that is threatening Neal’s property and the Santa Cruz Local Agenda 21 Action Plan that has guided our local planners since 1995.


Full Text:

‘Smart-Growth’ Plan Riles Black Farmers

By John Berlau

Insight on the News – National Issue


State Rep. Neal and his mother, LaVerne, worry that land-use restrictions will deprive them of the potential for wealth from their 92 acres of fertile farmland. Media Credit: Vance Jacobs/Insight

Like many property-rights advocates throughout the nation, South Carolina landowner Joe Neal has some choice words for his county’s new “smart-growth” plan that may put his farmland off-limits to development in the name of helping the environment and fighting suburban sprawl. “It’s robbery!” the hearty 51-year-old native South Carolinian exclaims, arguing his family tended the land for generations and deserves whatever the market will bear should they decide to sell some of their 92 acres just outside the capital city of Columbia. Neal calls the so-called smart-growth plan “a taking” that “restricts landowners from creating wealth.” He says he cares about the environment, but “people are a part of the environment, too.”

When the establishment media hear this type of complaint they usually castigate people who make comments such as Neal’s for “standing in the way of environmental progress” and portray them as “angry white males” or Republicans. But in Neal’s case, this might be hard to do. For he happens to be a black Baptist minister, a Democratic state representative and chairman of South Carolina’s Legislative Black Caucus. The land that has been in his family for so long is land that was purchased from a plantation owner by his great-grandfather shortly after he was freed from slavery.

“Smart growth” encompasses a series of land-use restrictions pushed by environmental groups, urban planners and politicians to halt the spread of the suburbs into the countryside. But, in South Carolina, Neal isn’t the o­nly prominent black leader concerned that environmentalist schemes to limit growth inevitably will put the brakes o­n black prosperity. The proliferation of smart-growth plans throughout the Palmetto State has pitted the state chapter of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/ PUSH Coalition and a local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter against the South Carolina Sierra Club and other state environmental groups. It also has created a rift between many black Democrats and Democratic Party leaders who have pushed the environmentalist agenda — a rift that may play a role in what appears to be a tight race for governor between incumbent Democrat Jim Hodges and Republican former congressman Mark Sanford.

“This is going to deprive people of economic wealth,” Lawrence Moore, president of the state’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition chapter, tells Insight. “The owners of the property, folks that tended this land, are losing out o­n the profit from that land. All it is is a transfer of ownership [to the government]. Government shouldn’t be in the land business.” Hattie Fruster, president of a local chapter of the NAACP, opines to Insight, “The Sierra Club is trying to get land away from blacks in order for them to have rural vacation spots.”

Neal, Moore and Fruster live in a predominantly black farming community in Richland County called Lower Richland. Southeast of Columbia, the area is home to many families that have owned their property for more than 100 years and are descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who in hard times and at terrible cost scraped up money to buy it.

In the 1860s, after he was freed from slavery, Neal’s great-grandfather bought 75 acres of wooded land from a large plantation. Through the generations, the Neals turned the acres into fertile farmland, harvesting corn, cotton and (currently) trees. Neal’s parents spent seven years building the two-story home where his mother, LaVerne, still lives, and saved up enough money to buy more acres of adjoining land.

LaVerne Neal, 72, recalls that there were many struggles during segregation, but at least the land she and her late husband owned was secure. “All during the time when we were fighting for civil rights, nobody messed with our land,” she says. “If I could pay my taxes, I didn’t have to worry about my land.”

But now Neal, her son and other landowners are worried that Richland County’s “2020 Town and Country Vision” plan will threaten their property rights in the name of the environment in a way that even segregationist politicians never dared. “The Sierra Club is now a chapter of the KKK,” says Lower Richland landowner Richard Jackson. The plan, adopted by the Democrat-controlled Richland County Council, designates almost all of the county’s prime farmland, mature-forest land and land near water as “preservation areas” that can’t be developed. To keep the growing metropolitan area of Columbia from spreading out farther into the country, it directs growth toward high-density “villages” that mix homes, schools and businesses, reflecting the “New Urbanism” style of neighborhoods now popular with many city planners.

Kit Smith, the Democratic county councilwoman and its former chairwoman who spearheaded the plan, told Investor’s Business Daily that it aims to curb “the leapfrog development … that skips over land and goes into another ring.” Under the plan, she said, planners will ask, “parcel by parcel … how does it fit into the overall picture of the community?”

The plan has received national praise, as politically correct plans tend to. Architect Andres Duany, who popularized the New Urbanist style, told the Columbia, S.C.-daily The State, “You have a first-rate county plan.” In the Clinton-Gore years, Smith was appointed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Local Government Advisory Committee. And the National Association of Counties gave Richland County an award.

But many of the Lower Richland natives think the plan will cheat them out of all their families have worked for. “What little land we now have represents wealth and potential wealth,” Joe Neal tells Insight. “When you take that from us, when you take wealth and potential wealth from these people, then you’ve robbed them of everything that they’ve slaved and labored for all those years, which is the promise that somewhere down the road, this property might produce wealth. State and county governments are pursuing conservation and antisprawl at the cost of this minority population who historically has been denied the opportunity to accumulate wealth and who reaches a point where, now, all that they’ve worked for is being devalued and they’re being denied another opportunity to have wealth.”

Dell Isham, director of the South Carolina Sierra Club, says that’s just tough; no investment is guaranteed to go up in value. “As all of us who have 401(k)s certainly know, there are no guarantees o­n your investments,” Isham tells Insight. “So why should o­ne type of investment be guaranteed and another not? Investments by their very nature are risky, and land certainly is a much safer investment than the stock market. Land’s not going to go down in value.” Isham had told Investor’s Business Daily in 2000 that “true farmers” should benefit from the plan. “For the true farmer, it’s good; if it’s the person who wants to develop and subdivide their land, it’s not to their advantage,” Isham said.

“That’s almost insulting,” counters Neal, noting that some small farms barely are able to survive. “A lot of black rural landowners can’t farm — not because they don’t want to, but because of the competition of corporate farms. They can’t make a profit. Now you’re going to turn around and say that because we drove you out of farming, you no longer ought to have a right to make any profit o­n the little land that you still managed to hold o­n to? That’s wrong. That’s absurd. It’s not these people’s fault that their historical farming roots have been killed.”

And even if Lower Richland residents decide to stay in farming, the smart-growth plan still could hit them hard, notes Gregory Cunningham, pastor of the mostly black New Light Beulah Baptist Church in Lower Richland. Since banks look at the most valuable uses of land should they have to foreclose, putting farmland off-limits to development reduces farmers’ borrowing power. Also, the plan says it will keep land from being subdivided by “downzon[ing]” the land to require large lot sizes for a house to be built o­n. The plan doesn’t specify a number, but communities with smart-growth plans have put limits as high as o­ne house per 40 acres.

Cunningham notes that some members of his church subdivide land not for development but so that their children can have their own homes o­n the family land. The Neals, for instance, have six houses for family members o­n their land, including a trailer that Joe Neal’s brother, G.B. Neal, temporarily lives in while his house is being built o­n the property. “We’ve got families whose sons and daughters have been educated, and o­ne of their long-range goals is to come back to Lower Richland prior to retirement and build homes,” Cunningham tells Insight. “With the present plan, as I see it now, it’s going to limit how much you can build o­n a parcel of land.” Cunningham also is worried that the church won’t be able to expand because the 18 acres of undeveloped land it owns may now be considered “green space.”

Isham and other supporters of the plan say some of these concerns can be addressed later, and that the plan hasn’t fully been implemented yet, although documents from the county planning commission show that it regularly considers whether a development request is consistent with the plan. “I think o­ne thing you want your comprehensive plan to do is to respect the existing culture and traditions of a people, and if family compounds are part of that tradition, then I think the comprehensive plan should respect that and make a provision for it,” Isham says.

But Neal, Cunningham and others are not encouraged when they look at what is happening with plans in other counties. In Charleston County, landowner Gene Cribb was forced to spend several years and more than $50,000 complying with various regulations to get permission to give his daughter o­ne-and-a-half acres of his 40-acre farm for her to live o­n. In Beaufort County, which includes the resort town of Hilton Head, landowners must conduct a survey of every tree o­n the land (in a woodland area, there can be hundreds of trees) for permission to subdivide.

Counties derived their authority to pass smart-growth plans from a state law passed in 1994 called the Local Government Comprehensive Planning Enabling Act, which required counties with zoning codes to enact comprehensive plans to guide future growth and development. The cosponsor of the bill was a Democratic state representative named Jim Hodges — who now is the state’s governor.

Critics say that as governor, Hodges has been totally insensitive to the concerns of blacks and other landowners about the smart-growth plans. They add that this gives an opening among blacks to GOP gubernatorial candidate Sanford that he definitely should pursue. “Hodges has stood by and watched African-Americans try to fight this, try to promote legislation to protect their property, try to stop these ordinances at the county level and he has absolutely done nothing,” Edward McMullen, president of the conservative South Carolina Policy Council, tells Insight. “He has not spoken a word to address black, white or anyone’s concerns about local governments actively engaged in taking property rights.”

Hodges, whose re-election campaign the Sierra Club is endorsing, has sponsored annual conferences o­n growth, with panels heavily stacked with representatives of state environmental groups such as the Palmetto Conservation Foundation. “Now is the time to plan for our next decade of explosive growth,” Hodges said at the 2001 conference. Lower Richland residents noted with concern that the chairwoman of o­ne of his conferences was councilwoman Smith, who spearheaded Richland County’s smart-growth plan. Pastor Cunningham was disappointed in Hodges’ response when he wrote to ask the governor to meet with landowners in Lower Richland before signing the Conservation Bank Act, which would give counties state funds to buy up land for conservation. The landowners were concerned that counties could downzone land and then use state money to buy it at cheap prices. Hodges did not meet with the Lower Richland landowners, and wrote back saying he already had decided to sign the bill, which he did early this year.

In a brief interview with Insight after he spoke to an agribusiness group in Columbia, Hodges says, “My general philosophy is that local governments are in a better position to be able to craft ordinances for local communities.” But Neal notes that the state has some say both because of the Enabling Act that gave counties the power to limit growth and the state money that will come from the Conservation Bank Act, which Neal staunchly opposed and worked with conservative Republicans to try to defeat.

By contrast, candidate Sanford, a libertarian Republican who was seen as a maverick in the U.S. House of Representatives, came down clearly o­n the side of property rights in an interview with Insight. Sanford, a former real-estate developer, said: “We want to look at maintaining South Carolina’s way of life in a way that’s consistent with private-property rights and market principles,” he says. “The idea of government dictating who can basically do what with their land to me is sort of a bureaucratic, top-down, communist-style way of getting there.” Sanford says he can sympathize with the Neals because his family farm was downzoned in Beaufort County. Although he supported the Conservation Bank Act, he says he would do what he can as governor to prevent counties from using the money to trample private-property rights. “If, in fact, there are shenanigans, people trying to downzone land so they can buy it cheaper, I would say that that’s not right and try to take corrective measures,” he says.

Sanford already is making efforts to court black leaders upset with Hodges o­n a variety of issues. He may find a willing audience in Lower Richland, where black leaders have worked hand-in-hand with conservative property-rights activists who are white, such as husband and wife Bill and Kay McClanahan. The Rainbow Coalition’s Moore says he is upset with Hodges, and there is a “good chance” he will endorse Sanford. Joe Neal has not endorsed any candidate, but says he doesn’t know much about Sanford, disagrees with him o­n some important issues and probably will endorse Hodges. He adds, however, that he is willing to meet with Sanford to discuss land rights and other issues. “It’s good that he is showing some sensitivity to our concerns,” Neal says. The key black legislator emphasizes that he still is a “dyed-in-the-wool Democrat,” but then paraphrases a famous remark by abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, o­nly permanent interests.”


‘Smart Growth’ Plan Riles Black Farmers by John Berlau

John Berlau is a writer for Insight magazine.

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