Bills would aid building in wetlands, forests

Swimmers were warned in June, 2016, not to go into the Saluda River

A sign along the Saluda River in June, 2016, reads, "Swimming or wading here may make you sick."
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A sign along the Saluda River in June, 2016, reads, "Swimming or wading here may make you sick."

Businesses could soon find it easier to build roads, landfills and subdivisions through environmentally sensitive areas across South Carolina.

Bills that would limit legal challenges to state environmental permits are moving through the House and Senate as part of an effort to speed up construction of controversial projects. Supporters of the legislation want to limit legal appeals that they say slow progress.

The push is being led by Horry County lawmakers who are in a bitter dispute with environmentalists over construction of a new road through prime bear habitat in a nature preserve near Myrtle Beach.

But critics say changing the law as proposed could have sweeping implications.

“This is seeking to take away from citizens the right to challenge government bureaucratic decisions, and I’m not OK with that,’’ said Sen. Thomas McElveen, a Sumter Democrat leading efforts to derail the legislation.

Up for debate is whether the state should continue to prevent construction projects that are under legal appeal at the S.C. Administrative Law Court. Current law generally halts those projects until all appeals have been resolved in the court.

The Senate plan, approved last week by the Judiciary Committee and sent to the full chamber, would allow development to occur before the appeals are resolved.

Work could begin 60 days after an appeal is filed, according to the Senate version of the bill. Many cases take a year or more to resolve.

That would mean that a project could be built before a decision on the merits of the case is rendered by the Administrative Law Court, McElveen and other critics of the legislation say.

Amy Armstrong, a lawyer for the nonprofit S.C. Environmental Law Project, said citizens in Laurens County were able to stop a landfill in their community because work was automatically held up while their permit appeal worked its way through the court system. Ultimately, the citizens won.

“Because they had the (protection), the landfill wasn’t built,’’ said Armstrong, who represented the group.

Because of McElveen’s objection, it could be weeks before the Senate takes up the bill. The House, however, could approve its own bill as soon as this week. It would then go to the Senate and be sent to a committee. The House bill is similar to the one before the Senate.

Sens. Greg Hembree and Luke Rankin, both Republicans from Horry County, have argued that the system needs reform. Neither was available Monday for comment, but Hembree has said he’s not trying to stop environmental protection.

Leaders in Horry County have said they are frustrated at delays they blame on environmentalists in construction of International Drive between Myrtle Beach and Conway. The road is touted as a vital local corridor for traffic in tourist-clogged Myrtle Beach. But the road runs through the state-owned Lewis Ocean Heritage Bay nature preserve, which is frequented by one of the state’s larger populations of black bears.

Armstrong’s group and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League have said the road will be too destructive to the environment and imperil bears, which might run in the path of cars. They have pushed for barriers to keep bears from running into the road.

Developers and manufacturers have been pushing a similar version of the bill now before the Legislature for about two years.. But the issue has come up for much of the past decade.