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New business drives Fairlawn mitigation effort

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Fairlawn Plantation will remain undeveloped following several mitigation deals with some of the region’s biggest employers. (Photo/Mac Stone Photography and Open Space Institute)

The final conservation piece is in place to permanently protect Fairlawn Plantation in north Mount Pleasant, closing the door on development there and allowing the land to be added to the Francis Marion National Forest.

A state-led rail project connecting the future Volvo Cars campus in Berkeley County to the Port of Charleston is the latest project resulting in mitigation of about 2,000 acres on the nearly 6,000-acre plantation.

Environmentalists say conservation of Fairlawn Plantation will help protect the threatened species and trees that call it home. (Photo/Mac Stone Photography and Open Space Institute)

Projects requiring mitigation

  • Boeing opened its Dreamliner campus in North Charleston in 2011. The airplane manufacturer now employs more than 7,000 people and produces three 787 derivatives on the site, including the new 787-10. In 2013, the company opted to lease 468 acres nearby in case it needed to expand later. This lease prompted the Fairlawn Plantation mitigation. Boeing has other mitigation projects in the region for its manufacturing campus.
  • Mercedes-Benz Vans began expanding its campus in 2015, evolving from an assembly site to a full-scale van production operation. The automaker will hire 1,300 people to produce Sprinter vans from start to finish. The work requires extensive construction, resulting in its role in the mitigation.
  • The S.C. State Ports Authority plans to begin construction on its long-planned harbor deepening project early this year. The dredging work will deepen the harbor channel to 54 feet and the surrounding river’s entrances to 52 feet, up from the current 45 feet. Officials expect the project will ready the port for a future in which big ships rule the waterways and deeper ports win more business. Fairlawn is part of the port’s mitigation efforts.
  • Volvo Cars began building its first U.S. car production site in Berkeley County in 2015 with plans to hire 2,000 people and build the first-ever S60 sedan. The Swedish automaker now plans to double its investment with an additional 2,000 hires to also build the next-generation XC90. The company needs a rail line connecting its site, located near Ridgeville beside Interstate 26, to the Columbus Street Terminal in downtown Charleston. Volvo plans to export a portion of its S.C.-produced vehicles; the remainder will go to North American customers. Palmetto Railways, a division of the S.C. Commerce Department, will handle the construction of the Camp Hall Rail Line, which calls for connecting the Volvo site to an existing CSX rail line that connects to the port. The project awaits regulatory and state approvals. The rail line prompted the Fairlawn mitigation; the overall Volvo campus required extensive mitigation in the Lowcountry.

Source: The Open Space Institute, Army Corps of Engineers, Boeing S.C.

The S.C. Commerce Department will protect around 1,000 acres to compensate for the planned Camp Hall rail line. The Open Space Institute, a New York-based environmental agency with operations in South Carolina, will handle that transaction, as well as protect the remaining 1,000 acres.

This is the final acquisition by the Open Space Institute for the Fairlawn project, rounding out a four-year, $17 million effort to ensure the land remains publicly accessible and permanently protected.

The site is the last large, privately owned site within the Francis Marion National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service will have long-term ownership and management of the Fairlawn land.

Open Space Institute project manager Patrick Moore said protecting the land enhances the survivability of the many species that call it home, including woodpeckers, salamanders and longleaf pines.

Boeing, Mercedes-Benz Vans, the S.C. State Ports Authority, and now the state Commerce Department all played a role in conserving the site as part of their mitigation plans.

“For 25 years, it’s been the No. 1 conservation priority of numerous state and federal agencies and conservation groups,” Moore said. “There have been numerous ideas and attempts to conserve it, and they haven’t worked out. ... This represents conservation as an economic development tool.”

Economic development projects typically involve construction of new facilities or infrastructure. Such work can harm, alter or destroy wetlands, land, trees or animal species on those sites.

Companies are required to work with state and environmental agencies to mitigate those losses. They can opt to protect land on the same site as their projects; they can buy environmental bank credits for later use; or they can protect land on another site in the state.

Companies or the state will pay to protect the land — depending on each individual incentive package — and then an environmental agency handles the transaction and land care.

“All told, OSI, our partners and the permit applicants have protected 6,000 acres of one of the most threatened landscapes on the East Coast ... all while creating thousands of jobs associated with permits for Boeing, Mercedes, harbor deepening and the Camp Hall Rail Extension wetlands mitigation,” Moore said. “It is a win-win in the truest sense.”

Boeing made the first move to protect land in Fairlawn Plantation, and the other companies followed.

The Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District, required Boeing to protect 4,000 acres in 2014 for its lease on 468 acres in North Charleston. Boeing has not used the land adjacent to its Dreamliner campus but has said it wanted control of it in case of future needs.

Boeing responded by protecting three separate tracts near the Francis Marion National Forest, including 2,200 acres in Fairlawn.

Boeing bought the Fairlawn tracts, and the Open Space Institute and The Nature Conservancy handled the transactions. The conservancy is conducting a longleaf restoration project on the Fairlawn site.

The Open Space Institute oversaw each of the four mitigation deals in Fairlawn. The institute’s vice president, Nate Berry, said protecting the Fairlawn property enables more prescribed burns in the area, which help species survive in the Francis Marion National Forest.

The Army Corps oversaw the regulatory side of each mitigation deal, approving the permit applications. Moore said the conservation land use agreement between the Army Corps and the U.S. Forest Service enables this type of conservation to occur swiftly.

He stressed that quickly executing mitigation deals is crucial both to score economic wins in a highly competitive race for jobs and to conserve natural assets in a growing region.

“It represents unprecedented environmental outcomes, unprecedented job creation and economic development outcomes, and positive growth-management outcomes for north Mount Pleasant that benefit everybody,” Moore said. “Hopefully, it is a trend that will continue with future projects and future economic development.”

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 8, 2018, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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