Senators move to limit appeals of environmental permits

State senators want to limit the time it takes to get environmental permits. Critics say the plan would make it easier to develop landfills, shopping centers, and other building projects at the expense of the environment.
State senators want to limit the time it takes to get environmental permits. Critics say the plan would make it easier to develop landfills, shopping centers, and other building projects at the expense of the environment.

COLUMBIA, SC A bill that could make it easier for developers to build in environmentally sensitive areas won overwhelming support Wednesday night from the state Senate, despite furious efforts by a handful of Democratic senators to derail the legislation.

The Senate voted 26-6 for legislation that boosters hope will jump-start road and construction projects that become mired in legal disputes over the work’s environmental impacts. The bill would allow developers, in some cases, to begin work on projects within 90-135 days, even if projects still are under legal appeal at the state’s Administrative Law Court.

If the bill becomes law, opponents said roads, buildings, landfills and other projects that need state environmental permits could be built and completed before legal challenges are resolved. The Senate is expected to give the bill routine final approval Thursday. The House and Gov. Henry McMaster also would have to sign off on the bill.

Lawmakers in the Republican-majority Senate reached a compromise after Democrats forced an extended debate that lasted into the evening.

Sen. Thomas McElveen, one of the six senators voting against the bill, said that while the legislation is a compromise, it still is bad for the public and for the environment.

“It is limiting citizens’ rights to challenge questionable or bad agency decisions,’’ the Sumter Democrat said. “The bill is much better than it was when it came on the floor today, but I still don’t like it.’’

Instead of making it possible for developers to begin work after 45 days, as proposed, the bill extends the waiting period to 90 days. After 90 days, a developer could ask an administrative law judge to lift what is known as an “automatic stay.’’ Lifting the stay would authorize construction work. A judge would have to hold a hearing within 30 days and render a decision within 15 days of the hearing, according to the plan.

Bob Guild, a veteran environmental lawyer from Columbia, said the Senate’s action means the average citizen would have to show why the judge should not allow development – rather than the developer saying why it should be allowed.

Under current law, developers can seek to have a stay lifted, but must make their case. Now, citizens would have to prove why the stay should not be lifted, said Guild, a Sierra Club leader.

Cases he’s handling for citizens who have appealed permits for a rock quarry in Lexington County and a dog food rendering plant in Saluda County would suffer if the Senate bill passes the Legislature, Guild said.

“This will hurt lots of regular South Carolinians who are trying to protect their communities and their backyards,’’ Guild said.

In addition to McElveen, senators who voted against the bill were Karl Allen, D-Greenville; Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield; Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston; John Scott, D-Richland; and Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw.

Senators backing the legislation said they are trying to prevent worthwhile projects from being held up by environmental groups with agendas. Sens. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, and Greg Hembree, R-Horry, said important road, port and economic development projects have been hurt by environmental groups that challenge the work or threaten legal challenges.

“They want to hold off a project, which will ultimately increase the cost of that project,’’ Senn said. She said the S.C. Coastal Conservation League is trying to stop the extension of Interstate 526 around Charleston and will likely file a lawsuit. The league’s fight against development in what it says are significant natural areas on the coast has drawn the ire of some lawmakers, most notably those from the Myrtle Beach area.

Lawmakers in the Myrtle Beach area, who have led the push for the bill, say the change in law is needed to prevent road and construction projects from being delayed for years in court. Supporters of the bill have been in a fight with the Coastal Conservation League over a new road through a wetlands-studded nature preserve frequented by black bears and home to rare plants, such as Venus flytraps.

Wednesday’s vote followed a decision Tuesday by the Senate to put the bill high on its calendar for a decision. By moving the bill high on the priority list, it allowed the Senate to take the matter up Wednesday.