South Carolina editorial roundup: Saturday, March 30, 2024


Times and Democrat

March 23

Protecting farmland is vital for S.C.

Neeses farmer Ken Griffith wrote recently about development.

While one might see land use as an issue in fast-growing counties such as Lexington, Beaufort, Charleston and Greenville, the fact is that all of South Carolina - as the fastest-growing state as identified by the U.S. Census Bureau - is facing long-term threats to the state's agrarian roots.

"I'm a middle-aged guy, and I have seen a lot of land get screwed up through the years, but never have I seen land get destroyed at the rate it is being destroyed lately. … I'm a small farmer by most standards if you look at the acreage I farm, but I lost a total of 342 acres in 2023 alone!" Griffith states.

"That's correct, in one year, I lost a total of 342 acres of rented land to development. Now all of the land lost was not just open land; part of it was wooded. However, it's still a big loss to me as a farmer and outdoorsman and land that will never be farmed or hunted again.

"Farmers like myself can't afford to compete for land with government-subsidized companies or with developers who constantly sneak around offering large sums of money to local landowners."

South Carolina is among the top 10 states most threatened by agricultural land loss, according to a 2020 study from the American Farmland Trust. The study found South Carolina lost nearly 300,000 acres of farmland between 2001 and 2016 before the pandemic triggered mass migration to the state in 2020.

South Carolina's leaders are aware of the challenges posed by rapid development and population growth, and they have taken action via the Working Agricultural Lands Preservation Act.

The new law establishes a program within the South Carolina Conservation Bank to pay landowners for conservation easements to permanently preserve their farmland. The easements are voluntary legal agreements between a landowner and land trust that limit how the land can be used.

Conservation easements lower a property's value because the land cannot be developed. The new Working Farmland Protection Fund would compensate farmers up to 50% of their easement value, or the difference between the land's fair market value and post-easement value.

When deciding on grants for conservation easements, the bank board is to consider several factors, including the threat that the land would be lost to development, the number of on-farm jobs, the suitability of its soil for farming, barns and other agricultural structures associated with a working farm and the natural resources associated with the farmland, such as forested land, wetlands, aquifers, riparian buffers and wildlife habitat.

Writing in today's T&D Spring Farm edition, S.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers states: "When people need new places to live, developers start to eye rural land. The competitive pressure for farmland is most intense in the Lowcountry and Upstate, but the Orangeburg-Calhoun-Bamberg area is feeling it.

"To help feed all these new people, we must protect farms and farming. That means continuing to support our farmers with policies and programs that make farming a financially viable proposition now and in the future."

Weathers is joined by conservationists and farmers in supporting the Working Agricultural Lands Preservation Act signed by Gov. Henry McMaster this month. He sees adding representatives from agriculture, commerce and transportation to the state Conservation Bank as ensuring that planning for the state's future takes farmers into account.

Make no mistake, however; the loss of farmland affects more than farmers. South Carolina is a pristine outdoors state, with its rural areas serving as great attractions for hunting, fishing, hiking, wildlife watching - and much more.

As Griffith urges: "People, put your land in some type of conservation reserve that protects it from development, offer your land to a local farmer before you consider selling to someone else, help your kids remodel an existing home or buy them a lot in town. Leave them a place in the country to enjoy before there is no 'country' left."

Post and Courier

March 23

Magistrates are the weakest link in S.C. judicial system

The problem with the way the Legislature elects upper-court judges is that the governor has no say, and the process has undermined public confidence in our judiciary by allowing lawyer-legislators to abuse their extensive influence to the advantage of themselves and their clients.

When it comes to the only judges most South Carolinians will ever encounter, magistrates, the problem is much larger and more complex: On paper, the governor has the most say; in reality, he has practically none, and many magistrates are forced to essentially work at will for their local senators. Moreover, it's not uncommon to find magistrates who don't understand the law and don't accept (or even understand) the concepts of conflicts of interest or basic fairness.

That's why it was exciting to see two provisions in the House's judicial-selection-reform proposal that could eliminate several of those problems.

The bulk of H.5170 deals with the Judicial Merit Selection Commission that screens candidates for the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Circuit, Family and Administrative Law courts, in much the same way as the similarly encouraging yet insufficient S.1046 that the Senate passed on Tuesday. But the bill sponsored by House Speaker Murrell Smith, his leadership team and the members of the ad hoc committee that reviewed the judicial selection process also creates a vetting process for magistrates similar to the one for higher-level judges. Even more significantly, it ends senators' ability to keep magistrates on a short leash.

One provision would turn the commissioners selected by the governor and the Senate into a screening panel for magistrates, which would run these lower-court judges through the same review process that other judges have undergone for decades. This would institutionalize and broaden a smart procedure Gov. Henry McMaster implemented last year to conduct his own vetting of the people local senators ask him to appoint, which means it would endure beyond his tenure.

It feels odd to have input from the governor and Senate but not the House, but this is in keeping with the speaker's promise that he would not try to win the House a new role in the process that today involves only the governor and the Senate.

In any event, the more significant change would bar senators from keeping magistrates in holdover purgatory after their terms expire - a practice that gives local senators the power to replace magistrates who displease them at a moment's notice. H.5170 says if the Senate has refused to confirm a replacement within 14 days, the governor may name a temporary replacement to serve until the Senate confirms that judge or someone else.

This procedure does require the governor to proactively appoint a magistrate when a local senator doesn't ask him to - something governors don't normally do because they know the Senate will reject that appointment. But as long as a governor is willing to do his job, this would make it impossible for an individual senator to engage in this blatant abuse of the whole idea of an independent judiciary; and if the governor doesn't do his job, he'll become a co-conspirator in one of the worst abuses of our judicial-selection system.

It's always possible that House leaders inserted these provisions into the bill as a bargaining chip - something to give away in return for the Senate's letting go of its proposals to give senators greater say in judicial elections. We hope not. And even if they did, the House and Senate need to treat them more seriously: These changes would go a long way to improve the quality and the ethical fitness of magistrates and to reduce the pressure some senators put on them to rule the way they want.

The Legislature certainly could pass a judicial-selection-reform bill that doesn't include magistrates. But since they're the weakest link in our judiciary, and since the House has come up with such smart reforms that we can't imagine anyone publicly admitting they oppose, why would it?