Legislation moving through the state House and Senate would require that environmental groups using the legal system to object to road construction provide a sound basis for their claim before those projects are halted.
Lawmakers supporting the bill, which includes almost all of the Horry County House delegation, say the legislation is needed to prevent the process from being abused to easily block road projects, including International Drive.
“I started talking to folks on the coast, and they told me how any individual can just file an automatic stay against a project to slow it down for whatever reason,” said state Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, chairman of the House Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee.
“They could get a stay on a project which could prolong it and cost developers quite a bit of money,” Hiott said.
Environmental groups oppose the legislation and have lobbyists in Columbia working to defeat the bill, which they say is directly targeted at them to prevent their court challenges of transportation projects they say negatively impact the environment.
Hiott’s bill in the House has 60 cosponsors, including nine of Horry County’s 10 House representatives -- Rep. Jackie Hayes, D-Dillon, has not signed onto the bill.
Hiott says he’s been promised the bill will get a hearing in the Judiciary Committee following the Easter recess, from which members are returning this week.
A companion bill authored by state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, has reached the Senate floor. However, a vote was delayed after Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, asked for more time to consider the legislation during the recess.
The nearly identical bills would require anyone challenging a permit that allows construction of transportation projects to the state Administrative Law Court to show proof their objection is legitimate. No proof is currently needed, and only a small filing fee is required.
This is a nuclear weapon in their arsenal.
State Sen. Greg Hembree
The court could also order those seeking to block a project to put up a bond to cover court costs as well as the cost to developers for halting a project.
Bill supporters point to the recent International Drive controversy as evidence the legislation is needed.
Construction of the four-lane road connecting Carolina Forest with S.C. 90 was delayed in August after the Coastal Conservation League objected to a water quality permit issued by the state.
The case was heard in the Administrative Law Court in February and a decision is expected this month. Horry County and the environmentalists have all pledged to challenge that decision all the way to the state Supreme Court, which means road construction, if allowed to move forward, would have been delayed for at least one year costing taxpayers more than $1 million.
“They’re taking advantage of this tool,” Hembree said. “This is a nuclear weapon in their arsenal.
“They have the ability to stop everything in its track without a good-faith showing. It’s out of whack, it’s out of balance in the system.”
If the bill passes, an automatic stay would last 30 days allowing environmental groups to temporarily block a project, but they must present to the court their basis for objecting.
The legislation is opposed by the Coastal Conservation League, which says the bill is targeted at conservationists in the hopes of thwarting their efforts by placing high prices on bonds.
It’s like a temporary restraining order that prevents irreparable harm.
Natalie Olson, staff attorney with the Coastal Conservation League
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars could be required to have a bond for litigation,” said Natalie Olson, staff attorney for the league in Charleston. “It would be the first of its kind and prevent many people in the state to their right to due process.”
Olson disputes that automatic stays tie up road construction projects in litigation.
“It’s like a temporary restraining order that prevents irreparable harm,” Olson said. “It’s just a pause button.”
Olson cited the “Angel Oak” tree in Charleston where environmentalists and community members objected to a planned development near the park where the ancient tree stands, as the key reason why the automatic stay should continue without restrictions.
Mike Wooten, chairman of the S.C. Department of Transportation Commission, supports the legislation and is holding off on pursuing a needed federal permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to continue construction efforts of Interstate 73 in the hopes the measure will see final passage by June.
Hiott says a bond amount has not been set by lawmakers, and could likely be left to the court, but Wooten is hoping for a 10 percent requirement.
With an estimated price tag of more than $1 billion for the interstate, that would mean a $100 million bond required by a judge if environmentalists protest that permit through the Administrative Law Court.