Congressional candidates spar over Sanford family's Beaufort County land sale

A fight is on between 1st Congressional District candidates Mark Sanford and Teddy Turner over the Sanford family's acceptance of $2.5 million in public dollars in a land deal.

Turner blasted Sanford, the race's front-runner, Tuesday for campaign signs that read, "Sanford saves tax $."

"It's hypocritical for him to take that money, then claim to save taxpayers' money," said Turner, a Charleston economics teacher and son of media mogul Ted Turner.

In 2011, Beaufort County and the U.S. Marine Corps purchased development rights for about $2.5 million and placed a conservation easement on Coosaw Plantation, the northern Beaufort County family home of Sanford.

The deal meant the 1,500-acre rural site would forever be preserved and never developed -- as area conservationists had long hoped, to protect wetlands and miles of waterfront. It also protects Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort from encroaching development.

The Sanford siblings, who spent some of their childhood on the property, were compensated $1,660,000 by the U.S. Department of Defense and $833,000 by a county program to preserve rural and critical land, according to media reports. Their late father, Dr. Marshall Clement Sanford Sr., bought the land in the 1960s.

"How do you say you're saving taxpayers' money when you're getting $2.5 million?" said Teddy Turner, noting that most conservation-easement agreements result in tax deductions for property owners, not a multi-million-dollar check. "You're getting paid to not develop property that you have said time and time again you're not going to develop. So why accept the money? It's hypocritical. It's not saving tax money."

Conservation easements can take many forms, including payment, according to leaders of the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, which brokered the Coosaw Plantation deal. They add that it was a "bargain sale transaction" for about 50 percent of fair market value.

Sanford's campaign fired back, saying Turner is the hypocrite.

"(Turner) says he wants to protect our bases. But when a family is approached by the military to help protect a base and they do it, he criticizes it," said Joel Sawyer, Sanford's spokesman. "It's hypocrisy on Teddy's part."

Nearly all of the candidates have expressed support for working to keep the state's military installments open as the Pentagon cuts spending. Those cuts could include two rounds of base closures in the next few years. During the last round of closures in 2005, the air station, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Naval Hospital Beaufort were spared.

Turner's family is no stranger to conservation easements.

In 2012, his father, Ted Turner, was listed as the nation's second-largest landowner by Forbes magazine, owning 2.1 million acres in nine states, including St. Phillips Island off Beaufort County's coast that he purchased in 1979.

Much of the land is in easements, Ted Turner's spokesperson has said.

Teddy Turner himself owns no property under easements, according to his campaign.

Follow reporter Gina Smith at twitter.com/GinaNSmith.