COLUMBIA, SC Gov. Henry McMaster is siding with developers and Myrtle Beach area lawmakers in supporting a bill he says will prevent unnecessary delays in construction projects, despite criticism that the measure could hurt the environment.
The bill, which is still being debated in the Legislature, limits the amount of time work could be stopped on a development project while state environmental permits are being challenged in court. It could allow development that is under challenge to occur before a state administrative law court case is resolved.
McMaster said the bill limits to three months the amount of time a project could be stopped. But many cases take longer than that. Current state law prevents construction of many projects approved by state regulators until a permit dispute is resolved in Administrative Law Court.
McMaster, who has been praised in the past for taking stances in favor of the environment, said legal disputes are hurting progress in South Carolina.
“Currently, court challenges can automatically stop work in important construction projects for unnecessarily long periods of time,” McMaster said in a prepared statement. “Under this bill, the time period for which a court may issue an 'automatic stay' is limited to a reasonable and practical 90 days. Lengthy delays and uncertainty inhibit economic growth. Sound business decisions and strong environmental policies will allow our state to prosper.
“I applaud the work of the Horry and Georgetown legislators and the other leaders for their diligent work on this bill and look forward to signing it into law soon.’’
Supporters of the bill, including Horry Republican senators Luke Rankin and Greg Hembree, were not immediately available. Both are backing a new road from Conway to Myrtle Beach that they say has been beset with unnecessary delays.
But state Rep. James Smith, a Columbia Democrat and potential candidate for governor, said McMaster’s support for the bill is a bad idea. Smith said the bill curtails citizens’ rights. The measure has passed the Senate and Smith said he’ll fight the legislation when it reaches the House floor.
“This has put a thumb down on the scale in favor of big industry and against the average South Carolinian,’’ Smith said. “It is surprising and disappointing, but another decision in a line of several decisions that have proven disappointing by this governor.’’
Environmentalists also blasted the decision, saying the bill could allow for construction of landfills or development projects that average citizens don’t want in their neighborhoods.
Sierra club lawyer Bob Guild and John Tynan, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said McMaster had a good record on the environment when he served as attorney general, but Thursday’s announcement runs counter to that.
“There has been a lot of rhetoric around this bill and a lot of it has been framed in economic development terms, but ultimately, this is about starting construction before you have your permits,’’ Tynan said.
Guild said McMaster’s position on the bill is part of a war on environmental regulations that started with the election of President Donald Trump, whom McMaster supported. At least three bills are now pending in the legislature that would limit citizens’ rights to challenge the state or major corporations over environmental issues, he said. Among those is a bill to limit challenges to mega chicken farms, Guild said.
Amelia Thompson, an attorney for the non-profit South Carolina Environmental Law Project, said the legislation McMaster supports “is not good for people or the environment.’’ Law project director Amy Armstrong said she thinks Horry County officials want the bill approved to help them with future roads project, such as the proposed Interstate 73.
The legislation follows a bitter dispute in Horry County over construction of a new road along the edge of a state nature preserve that is filled with wetlands and inhabited by black bears. Myrtle Beach area legislators, among the chief supports of the bill, have been pushing for the road to be built to ease traffic congestion in the tourist clogged resort.
But the road has been hung up in legal disputes with Thompson’s organization over its environmental impact. Under pressure from Horry County lawmakers, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources backed away from a plan to protect bears from being hit by cars by installing culverts for them to pass through. Horry County officials fought the bear passages, saying they were too expensive.