HORRY COUNTY, SC (WBTW) – This past Friday, the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (“SCELP”) filed a request for contested case hearing before the state Administrative Law Court on behalf of the Coastal Conservation League (“League”) and the Wildlife Federation challenging the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (“DHEC”) authorization to fill or eliminate over 24 acres of wetlands in connection with the paving and widening of International Drive in Horry County.
The SC Department of Natural Resources owns to the center line of the current dirt road as part of the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. “Lewis Ocean Bay is one of South Carolina’s treasures, containing the world’s largest bay complex and home to numerous rare, threatened and endangered plants and animals,” according to Steve Gilbert, Senior Biologist with the Wildlife Federation and former U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Biologist. “This Preserve is one of the crown jewels of South Carolina’s natural landscape and is recognized as having international significance for its beauty and biological diversity,” said Gilbert. The Wildlife Federation was created to ensure the use and application of science in land-use and natural resource management decisions. The project includes filling and eliminating over 24 acres of wetlands, including numerous Carolina Bays on the state preserve. Paving International Drive would result in the entire preserve being isolated and surrounded by roads, which Gilbert called “an astonishing failure to adhere to basic scientific principles regarding habitat fragmentation and isolation.”
In a 2010 contract between Horry County and SC DNR, the state agreed to a two-lane road with three constructed passageways for wildlife. Then, in 2013, the County urged DNR to enter a new contract, which eliminated the requirement for the wildlife passageways. The County also significantly increased the scope of the project to a five-lane road. The League and Wildlife Federation later submitted comments to DHEC and the Corps of Engineers urging the agencies to require the County to, at a minimum, stick with its 2010 plan. “We want the County to abide by its original, taxpayer-approved plan for International Drive, which was a two-lane road with three underground wildlife passageways,” said Nancy Cave with the League. DHEC’s approval noted that a two-lane, undivided International Drive “will not reach capacity until 2035.”
The League, Wildlife Federation and SCELP met with the County twice and exchanged three offers and counter-offers in unsuccessful attempts to reach a compromise. Ultimately, the County was unwilling to install even one wildlife passageway or any system at all shown to decrease the likelihood of vehicular-bear collisions. In addition, the County has included ten (10) curb cuts into the project, which “will lead to multiple areas for bears to enter and get trapped on the road,” said Cave. The County refused the League’s request to decrease the number of curb cuts. “The League has focused on wise land-use planning for decades and including 10 new entry points onto International Drive is poor planning and will only lead to development that will exacerbate congestion,” said Cave.
The League and Wildlife Federation “are willing to continue negotiations in hopes of a resolution that minimizes opportunities for wildlife to enter the roadway and keeps humans and wildlife safe” stated Amy Armstrong with SCELP. “This appeal was filed to defend public lands, waters and wildlife – these resources are owned by all citizens of South Carolina. Although the County originally planned to include three wildlife passageways into the road project, we have asked them for just one single passageway – a significant compromise for my clients – and they have still refused,” said Armstrong. According to Armstrong, settlement negotiations can continue, even though the case has been filed in the Administrative Law Court. She said her clients “remain willing to have meaningful give-and-take discussions.”
Mark Lazarus, Horry County Council Chairman, released the following statement in regards to the appeal for the International Drive project:
Sorry to hear this. We have tried in good faith to compromise with this special interest group. Their demands are more than any official regulatory agency has set forth and will cause unnecessary delays to re-engineer our entire project from what has been approved by every governmental agency. On top of that, their complete disregard for the will of the citizens of Horry County that have voted and have pushed for this project for their safety and quality of life. I will make further comment once I have had a chance to read their appeal. It is in the Waccamaw Watershed by way of Bull Creek. The Corps of Engineers approved it and have used another portion of it on other Horry County projects in Loris and Aynor.”
Information in this story is from a Press Release.