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 County Vision" plan will threaten their property rights in the name of the environment in a way that even segregationist politicians never dared. …