For years, Sara Bazemore has been interested in working at South Carolina’s coastal resources agency.
She recently got her wish – in a big way.
Bazemore, an attorney with one of the state’s largest law firms, has been named director of the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s coastal office. She replaces Carolyn Boltin-Kelly, who left the post last summer after nine years on the job.
Department director Catherine Templeton announced Bazemore’s hiring at DHEC’s monthly meeting last week in Columbia.
Bazemore, a mother of two young children whose husband is in a folk rock band, has experience as both a DHEC air division attorney and as a private lawyer. Before recently taking the coastal resources job, she worked for more than three years at the Nelson Mullins law firm, the high-profile company with offices across South Carolina.
As coastal director, she'll be paid $97,000, according to DHEC.
Raised on the Charleston peninsula, Bazemore, 37, said she has always loved the coast. She recalled a time when she was in law school that she and her father met Boltin-Kelly over lunch one day.
After the meal, she told her father that Boltin-Kelly was lucky to have the job as coastal resources director. Boltin-Kelly announced last spring she was moving to Florida, where her husband is a college president.
“I said, ‘I’d love to have her job one day,’ and my Dad said, ‘Well, you can,’” Bazemore said, drawing a collective chuckle last week from the DHEC board.
“I do have a personal as well as professional interest in the coast, particularly South Carolina’s coast, so I’m real pleased” to have the position, she said.
The DHEC coastal office regulates development in an eight-county region from Hilton Head Island to North Myrtle Beach. Its duties include deciding whether people should be granted permits to build docks in salt marshes and homes along beaches.
Agency decisions can make people angry because that sometimes means telling folks who want to develop property they can’t have a permit. Or it means granting a permit and taking heat for the decision from neighbors and environmentalists.
The coastal division also is charged with enforcing environmental laws, which can be contentious. The division currently is embroiled in a major dispute with affluent landowners at the Isle of Palms over construction of an illegal seawall. Regulators this fall hit a condo association with a whopping $750,000 fine.
Columbia environmental lawyer Bob Guild said he hopes Bazemore does well as DHEC coastal division director, but he questioned how a private industry lawyer would perform as a regulator. Bazemore is among several lawyers chosen by Templeton for high-level positions at DHEC since Templeton took office in 2012. Nelson Mullins sometimes defends corporations accused of environmental wrongdoing.
“You’re a regulator, then you go into representing industry, then you come back as a regulator in a senior position,” Guild said. “From the perspective of an environmental advocate, it just raises questions about whether your fundamental orientation is on executing the mission of the agency. So it remains to be seen.”
In an interview with The State newspaper, Bazemore said she realizes regulating development can be tough, but said she’s up to the task and will be fair in the job.
“The most important thing to remember is the coast is a dynamic area that is constantly changing,” she said. “I think I bring a unique perspective because I have good relationships across the spectrum, from environmental groups to the regulators to the private sector.
“Everyone’s perspective is important.”
DHEC’s coastal division, formally known as the Office of Ocean Coastal Resource Management, is headquartered in the Charleston area.
Bazemore, a 1998 University of South Carolina marine science graduate, earned a USC law degree in 2005. She focused on environmental law at Carolina and later at the Nelson Mullins firm. She also has a master’s degree in earth and environmental resources management from Carolina and held an internship with the S.C. Wildlife Federation. Bazemore worked as a lawyer at DHEC from 2006-2011.
She is married to Warren Bazemore, a businessman and one-time Irmo resident who plays in the regional band Finnegan Bell. The couple are expecting a third child next year.
A member of the Pendarvis family from Charleston, she said she didn’t go to law school to make a career of arguing in court, but she believes her legal background helps.
“I've also got a science background,” Bazemore said. “My goal (is) to bring all these groups together and bring good policy to our state.”