Nearly nine years ago, Horry County voters approved completing extending International Drive from Carolina Forest to S.C. 90 as part of RIDE II. So Felicia Soto asks a very reasonable question: “… is this thing ever going to come to be?”
She speaks for hundreds of residents who have every right to ask why this seriously needed 5.6-mile road has not been completed. The rub is that it will go through the Lewis Ocean Bay Preserve and environmental groups are insisting that the project include fencing and under-the-road crossings for wildlife, notably black bears.
More than 600 names are on a petition calling for the road project to proceed immediately and community meetings have attracted more than 150 frustrated residents.
It is beyond frustrating that RIDE II projects with a lower priority than International Drive have been completed. The situation is compounded by the fact that S.C. law requires that road projects funded by sales tax revenue be done in the order they were presented to voters.
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Environmental protection groups continue to delay completion of International Drive, just as they delayed the extension of S.C. 31, the Carolina Bays Parkway and widening of S.C. 707, which are also RIDE II projects approved by voters in 2006 and funded by a 1-cent sales tax. The RIDE concept uses sales taxes to provide revenue for road improvements in a state that has not increased its motor fuel tax for decades.
The South Carolina Environmental Law Project, acting on behalf of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, filed a Request for Final Review on July 10. That action has the effect of further delaying paving of International Drive.
In a report by Jason M. Rodriguez of The Sun News, Amy Armstrong, executive director of the Environmental Law Project says “We’re asking the [Department of Health and Environmental Control] DHEC board to review their staff’s decision and tell staff that they need to include these protective measures for wildlife, measures that the resources agencies say are needed to project the wildlife.”
Armstrong and others refer to a 2010 contract of Horry County and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources granting an easement and calling for the fencing and underpasses. However, in 2013 the two parties agreed, in a memorandum of understanding, not to include fencing or the wildlife underpasses and to build a four-lane road.
Representatives of environmental groups have claimed in published statements that Horry County reneged on the wildlife protection (per the 2010 contract) and the county has caused the delay on International Drive. That is disingenuous, given the fact of the 2013 memorandum in which the DNR agreed to no bear crossings and no fencing. Horry County did not file the Request for Final Review; the delaying action, plain and simple, was by The S.C. Environmental Law Project on behalf of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.
It’s significant that the Sierra Club of Horry and Georgetown counties is not a party to the delaying action. The Sierra Club is a notable proponent for wildlife. Sierra Club chairman Bo Ives, former president of the Carolina Forest Civic Association, cites the need for balance in protecting the preserve and paving International Drive.
Ives also spoke to the bear crossings, saying “the bear tunnels are a bad idea [because] one takes you to the Solid Waste Authority and the second takes you to [property on which a hunt club is located].” Ives also notes that the huge wildfire in 2009 greatly impacted much of the 9,383-acre preserve.
Also to the point, Ives’ home adjoins the preserve and “We haven’t seen a bear in 10 years.”
Armstrong counters that bears are routinely observed by preserve workers. As to the location of the tunnels, she says conservationists would rely on the recommendations of the DNR – which signed off via the 2013 agreement.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, S.C. 7th District, weighed in on the issue, writing in The Sun News (July 18), “I believe that the term ‘environmentalism’ has been hijacked by a group of folks who should more correctly be labeled obstructionists. They believe it their duty to put up roadblocks to progress.”
It is a stretch to say obstructionists have taken over environmentalism, but Rice clearly spoke for many frustrated ordinary residents of Horry and Georgetown counties. when he said “I believe we can move forward with infrastructure, improve people’s lives, create jobs AND protect the environment.”
We imagine it would be difficult to find many residents of Carolina Forest and thousands of others crawling along traffic-clogged U.S. 501 who do not want International Drive completed.
At the end of the day, people and their needs have priority over bears. But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Perhaps the county and the several entities involved could agree to fencing and at least one underpass for wildlife. If that’s what it takes to pave International Drive after nine long years, so be it.
For their part, the S.C. Environmental Law Project and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League need to acknowledge that building needed roads for people and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive goals.