November 24, 2012

As state’s wetland dwindles, South Carolina seeks new answer

In the nearly 12 years since the U.S. Supreme Court eased federal protections on isolated wetland, swampy South Carolina has talked at length about how to fill the gap and save these wildlife-rich bogs.

In the nearly 12 years since the U.S. Supreme Court eased federal protections on isolated wetland, swampy South Carolina has talked at length about how to fill the gap and save these wildlife-rich bogs.

But every time someone proposes a new law to protect isolated wetland, business groups complain and the legislature shoots it down.

Now, state leaders are trying a different approach. Many want the state to set aside money to preserve isolated wetland, rather than protect it through prohibitions on development.

A plan under discussion at the Statehouse would use revenue from South Carolina’s deed recording fees to pay for buying wetland or purchasing development rights from landowners. The money would come from the state Conservation Bank, which now is funded through deed recording fees.

The plan already is drawing skepticism from budget hawks at the State House as well as some environmentalists. But proponents say it may be the state’s best hope of saving a vanishing piece of the landscape.

The idea is to encourage property owners to protect wetland, rather than pass tougher rules in a state where regulation is often considered a bad word.

“Whatever we come up with has got to be something that is practical, that we can get through the General Assembly,” said state Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley. “Otherwise, we’re just barking in the night and not accomplishing much.”

The wetland purchase plan drew unanimous support earlier this month from a study committee Campbell chairs. His group, which includes lawmakers, business people and conservationists, is expected to make a recommendation for the legislature to consider in 2013.

Isolated wetlands have sparked heated disagreements among lawmakers since the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which left preservation of these solitary bogs largely up to the states. While North Carolina, Virginia and Florida have measures to protect isolated wetland, South Carolina never filled the gap as real estate interests fought tougher rules that would restrict development.

Scientists and conservationists say, however, that isolated wetland should be saved before it vanishes under pavement or new houses and shopping malls. The issue is significant in South Carolina, which has one of the highest overall percentages of wetland in the Southeast.

“They are important to keep our ecosystem healthy,” said Savannah River Ecology Lab scientist Whit Gibbons, a member of Campbell’s wetlands committee. “Either directly or indirectly, they provide the food base for much of the wildlife in our state.”

Unlike river swamps and salt marshes, isolated wetlands are soggy depressions that are not fed by creeks or linked directly to waterways, such as tidal estuaries. They range from small wet patches in the middle of farm fields to larger depressions filled with trees and shrubs that attract wildlife. Some of the state’s rare Carolina bays, oval-shaped depressions found almost exclusively in this part of the country, are isolated wetland.

Through the centuries, development has depleted thousands of acres of wetland in South Carolina. Many flood-prone areas, such as Five Points in Columbia, were built on marshy land. In the 1980s alone, South Carolina lost some 20,000 acres of wetlands, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report.

The impact

No one is sure how many acres of isolated wetland exists in South Carolina, but past estimates by the state Department of Natural Resources placed the number at up to 500,000 acres, an amount approaching 15 percent of all wetland in the Palmetto State.

More recent estimates indicate the amount of isolated wetland or bays isn’t that high. A study conducted by University of South Carolina researcher Dan Tufford found that only 2 percent of the wetland acreage he examined contained isolated depressions in four soggy counties near the border with North Carolina.

Regardless of the total number of isolated wetland, they do not officially lose federal protected status until someone asks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if permits are needed to fill the wetland. At that point, the Corps studies the wetland and decides if it is isolated.

Since 2007, the Corps has declared more than 3,400 acres of wetlands not subject to its jurisdiction in South Carolina, meaning developers don’t need the federal permits usually required to build in other types of wetland, according to the Corps’ Charleston office. Permits give the government a chance to determine if projects will needlessly destroy wetland, a review that often results in protecting wetland.

Lowcountry conservationist Charles Lane said state funding is the most realistic approach to save the most significant isolated wetland and Carolina bays. A large amount of important wetland and many bays can be bought or protected by taking an additional nickel from each deed recording fee in South Carolina, he said.

Deed recording fees are paid when property is sold or transferred to another person. The state charges $1.85 cents for each $500 in value of property transferred. Of that, 25 cents now goes to the state Conservation Bank, with most of the rest going to counties and the state’s general fund.

“We could get more bang for our buck if we added money to the Conservation Bank and charge it with the idea of prioritizing the preservation of bays and isolated wetlands,” Lane said.

Nick Kremydas, chief executive with the S.C. Association of Realtors, said the committee’s plan is “the preferred route” over creating new regulations that he said could have unintended consequences. Kremydas is a member of the state Conservation Bank board.

But several lawmakers said the legislature is unlikely to increase funding for the Conservation Bank in 2013.

The S.C. Conservation Bank has helped preserve more than 150,000 acres of land in South Carolina, but recent statewide budget cuts have brought numerous battles for continued funding. Taking a nickel of existing recording fees to protect wetland through the Conservation Bank would divert money from the state’s general fund or several other specific programs that now receive funding from the recording fees. It was not immediately known how much that would cost.

“That is a tossup between ‘No’ and ‘Heck No,’ ” state Sen. Mike Fair said when asked about adding money to the Conservation Bank for wetland protection.

The Greenville Republican and fellow Senate Finance Committee member Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, said South Carolina has other fiscal priorities in 2013, including how to deal with a security breach at the state Department of Revenue that is expected to cost the state millions of dollars.

Amy Armstrong, a conservation lawyer and member of Campbell’s study committee, said the state needs both regulations to protect vulnerable isolated wetlands and money to buy some of them.

Armstrong, director of the nonprofit S.C. Environmental Law Project, scored a major victory in the S.C. Supreme Court last year that would have eventually required anyone wanting to fill isolated wetland to get a state permit – a first in South Carolina.

But after developers and the state Chamber of Commerce complained, the legislature passed a law that negated the state Supreme Court decision.

“The only way to ensure protections is through a regulatory program,” said Armstrong, whose organization has represented citizens in environmental cases for 25 years. “The committee’s recommendation right now is only voluntary protection.”

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