After reading Amy Armstrong’s letter July 23, (“International Drive held up when Horry County reneged on its promise”) I believe it is critical to defend Horry County and the efforts of the RIDE II Program Management team regarding the allegation of a “broken promise.”
The construction of International Drive required additional right-of-way in order to facilitate the road and associated infrastructure. Horry County approached SCDNR and Heritage Trust in an effort to purchase the needed 22.22 acres. After nearly a year, an agreement finally was reached that if Horry County would install bear crossings, the right-of-way would be donated for the roadway. This agreement morphed into more than $3 million in additional cost, as the requirements grew to include an 8-foot chain link fence topped with 3 strands of barbed wire along the entire right-of-way and bear tunnels grew to become bear bridges, all in the effort to meet the criteria that literally grew with every “study” completed by environmental experts from as far away as Florida. That was the deal at the time and the road was designed accordingly.
Several things changed during the following 30 months. Two years of delay, I must add, was due to the interference by the Coastal Conservation League in the Highway 707 widening and Highway 31 extension projects. As a result of those changes, the contract between the county and SCDNR was revised. First, SCDNR opened a bear hunting season in Horry County. From a common sense perspective, it is ludicrous to spend $3 million to protect bears from a potential accident while, at the same time, allow them to be killed by hunters.
Second, SCDNR and Heritage Trust had the opportunity to expand the Lewis Ocean Bay Preserve by including a 754 acre tract of property located, literally, in the center of the preserve. Because this would take the property off of the tax rolls, that could not have occurred without the approval of the Horry Legislative Delegation and Horry County Council.
Inclusion of this large tract as additional habitat had been a goal of SCDNR for years. Finally, leadership at SCDNR changed and common sense regarding this issue came with that change. Based on these three elements, the contract was restructured with the approval of both the SCDNR Board and the Heritage Trust Board. This was not accomplished in a vacuum or behind closed doors. At the request of SCDNR, the proposed four-lane roadway will have a posted 45 mph speed limit and the road will be closed to traffic during periods when SCDNR engages in controlled burns with the Heritage Trust Property.
In addition, the county paid SCDNR the appraised value of the right-of-way. To recap, SCDNR gained 754 acres of property for the Heritage Trust Lewis Ocean Bay Preserve and were paid the appraised value for the right-of-way. Horry County saved $3 million and, with those funds, will be able to build the roadway with 4-lanes and a multi-purpose (pedestrian and bike) path. Both sides win. Please note that the contract was revised to facilitate these revisions a year ago, removing the bear tunnel requirement, but the SCCCL chose to object to it hours before the permit would have been issued.
As to my confusion regarding the name of the group in the suit, I must admit these obstructionists are all the same to me, the names are interchangeable. And, while the Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Wildlife Federation did not “ask” for the project to be stopped in its tracks, the effect of their appeal indeed has that impact. For them to claim that was not their intent is disingenuous at best. I ask: If their concern is really for the bears, then where were they when SCDNR established a hunting season for them? I recall no outcry, appeal or lawsuit.
It’s time for our legislature to stop this by passing a law to end automatic stay. These groups use these tactics time and time again to force municipalities, private developers and even our State government to waste tens of millions of dollars, as well as valuable time and energy. These groups act, at first, like petulant children making unsupported claims and accusations in order to cloud reality and gain their way. When that doesn’t work, they bring in their lawyers to file frivolous appeals intended to delay and waste taxpayer’s money. This needs to stop.
The writer is SCDOT commissioner from Horry County.