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Green Diamond Back With New Plan: Developers Meeting With Residents and Officials With Proposal for Lower Richland

October 23, 2006

By Gina Smith, The State, Columbia, S.C.

Oct. 23–While Columbia leaders have not agreed to a plan to create artificial wetlands in Lower Richland, developers already are holding invitation-only community meetings to build support.

At the meetings, representatives of Columbia Venture LLC explain to residents, environmental activists and others what the wetlands project entails and why it’s a good plan that the city should pursue for the 1,700-acre site long known as the Green Diamond land.

The group also is working on plans to take residents on a tour of a portion of the land where wetlands might be created.

“We’re picking and choosing people to invite to our meetings who are truly concerned about the community and don’t have political agendas or other agendas,” said the Rev. J.P. Neal Jr., a resident who is helping organize the meetings on Columbia Venture’s behalf. His family owns land near the Green Diamond property.

“People feel good about this process,” Neal said. “We’re answering their questions.”

If Columbia City Council approves the plan, Columbia Venture LLC, which includes Myrtle Beach-based Burroughs and Chapin and undisclosed partners, would be closer to recouping its investment in the land — projected to be more than $14 million.

Others see the meetings as behind-the-scenes scheming to “sell” the plan to residents before City Council has a chance to vote.

“This is reminiscent of how Burroughs and Chapin did Green Diamond,” said Virginia Sanders, a longtime Lower Richland activist and opponent of the now defunct Green Diamond project.

That controversial $1 billion development project was proposed in 1999 by Burroughs and Chapin but didn’t pan out because of environmental issues.

“It’s the same con game that they’re getting ready to run,” Sanders said.

Greenville developer Bob Hughes, one of two managers of the Columbia Venture project, said it makes sense to begin talks with the community now — even if City Council hasn’t approved the project yet.

“Announcing things that you have concluded and then telling the community about it is backwards,” Hughes said. “That’s how Green Diamond did it. We’re not going to do that.

“The more the community knows about it, the more support we’ll have. This is environmentally friendly. Anybody who wants to meet, we’ll meet with them.”

Meanwhile, Columbia Venture has hired three well-known local people to help out.

Deas Manning, whose father originally owned the land, is helping Hughes manage the Columbia Venture project.

Hughes also recently hired Steve Fooshe, a campaign consultant, lobbyist and employee of the Foundation for Columbia’s Future, to educate residents in Columbia about the project.

Fooshe has brought in lobbyist Carlton Washington, and Columbia attorney Bill Boyd of Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd is registered to lobby City Council on behalf of Columbia Venture.

“I’m not in Columbia, so I needed help,” Hughes said.

CASH FOR CATTAILS

In essence, Columbia Venture wants the city to partner with it and pump the nearly 40 million gallons of sewage treated at the city’s wastewater treatment plant daily onto the Columbia Venture land. The land would be planted with acres of cattails, varieties of bulrush and other plants, creating an artificial wetland.

The plants would “eat” the phosphorus in the water. Then, the cleansed water would flow back into the Congaree River.

The city does not have a phosphorus limit but anticipates that the state Department of Health and Environmental Control will order it to reduce the amount of phosphorus it releases. Lake Marion, which has high phosphorus levels, is fed by the Congaree River.

Columbia Venture members say the artificial wetlands would both save and make money for the city:

–The artificial wetlands would mean less phosphorus in the water the city discharges into the Congaree River. Thus, the city could sell environmental credits to two nearby wastewater treatment plants. That means the two nearby plants could increase the amount of phosphorus they discharge into the river.

–The city plans to make about $50 million of improvements to its wastewater treatment plant in the next few years. Columbia Venture has said the city would not have to make all of these improvements if the wetlands were created.

City staff members, charged by City Council to see whether the project is viable, have met with Columbia Venture representatives. More meetings are planned before the project goes before the council for a vote.

There’s no timetable on how long that will be.

UNCLEAR FUTURE

Even if the city agrees to the artificial wetlands plan, Columbia Venture owns an additional 1,200 to 1,300 acres, and it’s unclear how much of that land can be developed and how.

In November, a judge cited a legal technicality in throwing out a flood map that would have restricted the property from development.

Richland County Council and federal officials must decide whether to revert to old flood lines or redraw them.

City officials, if the city annexes Columbia Venture’s tract, would use the lines to determine how much of the property could be developed.

Reach Smith at (803) 771-8462/

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Copyright (c) 2006, The State, Columbia, S.C.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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