The Coastal Conservation League confirmed Wednesday that agreements have been reached to drop all lawsuits against construction of International Drive, which means the long-disputed road could be open to the public within a year.
One dismissal came Tuesday in the federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, while the paperwork is still pending in the U.S. District Court in Florence and the S.C. Court of Appeals.
Natalie Olson, staff attorney for the environmental group, confirmed that they will drop the case as soon as signatures on the agreement are confirmed.
A recent court decision in Horry County’s favor allowing construction to move forward, but keeping the road closed to the public until the case was resolved, was the last straw for environmentalists. Construction began in March and could be completed as early as November.
In light of those “irreversible events,” Olson said it made sense to settle those difference and focus on future projects.
The league and Carolina Wildlife Federation filed numerous lawsuits in state and federal court beginning in 2015 challenging the 5.6-mile road project that will link Carolina Forest with S.C. 90.
The groups successfully blocked construction until the court decision a few months ago to allow work to continue, but to keep the road closed.
Environmentalists objected to the removal of bear tunnels — a million-dollar cost that county officials said was not needed — and maintained that building the road without wildlife protections would decimate the bear population in the nearby heritage preserve.
The settlement agreement essentially calls for both sides to walk away from the lawsuits without paying damages, said Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught.
“That’s the only kind of agreement we would accept,” Vaught said.
Horry County filed at least two countersuits against the environmentalists, including one asking for financial damages and the repayment of nearly $250,000 in legal fees.
“This ends the process and allows everyone to go their way, and the people of Horry County get their road,” Vaught said.
“That’s why I consider this a win,” Vaught said.
Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, says he hopes to work cooperatively with county leaders on future road projects, including the extension of S.C. 31 and what he describes as the eventual widening of S.C. 90.
“I would really like to work with the county on these projects and try to identify important habitat, and be able to make some progress on those without getting immersed in the legal system,” Beach said. “We’re looking forward to being involved in a non-judicial setting.”