Land trust gets funding to buy land near Angel Oak

By Liz Segrist
lsegrist@scbiznews.com
Published Nov. 11, 2013

Half of the land surrounding the Angel Oak will be turned into a park rather than a mixed-use development.

The S.C. Conservation Bank voted unanimously Thursday to allocate roughly $890,000 to the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, which plans to buy 17 of the 34 acres surrounding the Angel Oak, said Adrian Cain, the trust’s development director.

People come from all over the world to visit the massive Angel Oak on Johns Island. (Photo/Liz Segrist) People come from all over the world to visit the massive Angel Oak on Johns Island. (Photo/Liz Segrist)

Half of the funds will be given to the land trust by the end of this year to purchase the first 17 acres. The trust wants to prevent development near the massive tree and expand the 9-acre city park surrounding it.

The land trust had until Nov. 21 to raise the remaining $500,000 needed to buy the land from its current owner, Raleigh-based Coastal Federal Credit Union. The land is being sold for $3.6 million.

Charleston County’s Greenbelt Board put forth $2.4 million for it, which sparked the fundraising. Nearly 10,000 donors have helped raise the money thus far, in addition to contributions from local municipalities and companies.

The Historic Charleston Foundation donated $50,000 to the project. Both Boeing Co. and Blackbaud donated $25,000 and kicked off campaigns to promote donations from employees and the community. The towns of Seabrook and Kiawah islands donated to the project, and roughly $13,000 was garnered from donations at Piggly Wiggly stores throughout the area.

The future park could boast a community garden, a playground that’s shaped like the Angel Oak or an interactive learning center that teaches visitors about the area’s Gullah-Geechee history and civil rights contributions.

The remaining funds from the conservation bank will be allocated next year in the pursuit of buying the other 17 acres. An unnamed developer in Raleigh has the rights to develop on the remaining land. The land trust aims to work with the developer to prevent any development on the land.

“Additional funds will be used for additional acquisitions. We hope to turn it around and continue to acquire new acreage,” Cain said. “It creates a real opportunity, a real possibility, to protect the entire 34 acres.”

Attractive land

Developers have been eyeing the available land as a prime spot for mixed-use developments for years. Conservation groups say development would hurt the Angel Oak’s water sources and its shallow, massive and far-reaching roots.

More than 50,000 visitors seek the Angel Oak’s shade every year. On any given day, tourists speaking a variety of languages can be found spilling out of buses to see the tree. Visitors stare up through its branches while children run around it, ducking to dodge its massive limbs.

The Angel Oak’s huge trunk takes about five people holding hands to encircle it. Its huge branches shoot up into the air, others lay near the ground, and almost all of them grow toward the east.

Generations of Johns Island residents have gathered at the Angel Oak. During the civil rights era, blacks and whites could congregate in Charleston, according to conservationists. Under the tree’s shade, segregation didn’t exist.

The tree is a cherished Johns Island landmark, said Samantha Siegel, who spearheaded the grassroots movement to protect the tree with her online petition.

“It’s just truly the first place that ever felt like home for me. I think it’s like that for a lot of people,” said Siegel, founder of the Save the Angel Oak website. “It’s my sanctuary. It’s my happy place.”

More than 11,000 people have signed Siegel’s petition in the hopes of staving off development on the acreage surrounding the massive tree.

The tree became a tourist attraction when former owner Elmo Felkel opened it and started charging admission in 1964. In 1991, the city of Charleston purchased it for the public and later created a nine-acre park around it.

The nonprofit Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care Corp. owned the 42 acres that surround the tree until the nonprofit went bankrupt and sold the land to developer Robert DeMoura in 2005.

DeMoura, who did not return requests for comment, planned a mixed-use commercial and residential planned-unit development at Maybank Highway and Bohicket Road. It received approval from the city and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, but DeMoura foreclosed on the property.

His lender gained control of the now roughly 36 acres, after the city purchased the remaining space for a conservation zone.

“When that happened, things really opened up for change,” said Zimmerman, referring to the credit union’s decision to give the land trust the option to buy the land.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist.

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