The already delayed construction of International Drive faces another possible setback after conservationists filed a request with the state asking it to reconsider placing bear crossings and fencing back in the construction plans.
The request, filed Friday, is for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board to review its staff’s decision to proceed with constructing the long-awaited International Drive without providing the crossings or fencing. The road was scheduled to have been completed two years ago.
The Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Wildlife Federation are challenging DHEC’s issuance of a water quality and zone consistency certification for International Drive because it does not address their concerns for the safety of black bears in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.
The planned road, which is part of the RIDE II program approved by voters in 2006, would cut through the preserve. The conservation and wildlife groups have contended the state and county should stick to the original plans to provide three bear crossings, fencing along the road and narrow the plans from four lanes to two.
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DHEC staff has already approved the plans, but state law allows groups like the conservation league and the wildlife federation to ask the DHEC board to re-visit the staff’s work.
“What we’re really wanting to happen is for DHEC to require the conditions that everyone initially agreed to in the first place,” said Amy Armstrong, executive director of The South Carolina Environmental Law Project who submitted the request on behalf of the groups. “We’re asking the 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 protect the wildlife.”
In 2010, Horry County entered into a contract with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to grant an easement to the county to allow for construction of the 5.6-mile road. In exchange for the easement, fencing and three underground passageways would be a part of the plans. In 2013, the two entered into a memorandum of understanding that did not include the fencing, the narrowing of the road or the underground passageways.
Steve Gosnell, assistant administrator for infrastructure and regulation for Horry County, was part of those discussions to eliminate the crossings. He said a combination of discussions at the state level about the bear crossings as well as the county’s discussions with DNR about the barbed-wire fence being “overkill,” the plans were adjusted and the requirements were eliminated.
Gosnell said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must give the go ahead for a project like International Drive, was on the verge of issuing the permit until Friday’s filing.
“It is my understanding that if there not had been an appeal, they would have signed and issued the 404 (permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers),” Gosnell said.
Sean McBride, a media specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers, could not say Monday whether the permit was going to be issued for the project, but the Corps was prepared to decide on it if the appeal had not been filed.
“We were prepared to make our permit decision once we received the water quality and zone consistency from DHEC, but at the end of their 15-day notice, they were appealed,” McBride said. “They did submit an appeal to DHEC and, at this point, we can’t make a permit decision until we receive those final certifications.”
Gosnell said even if DHEC’s board does not review the request, it can move on to the court system and more appeals.
“If the administrative law judge supports DHEC’s staff position, there are still additional appeals out there that could push it way out,” Gosnell said.
The $16.5 million project has already been bumped two years by delays caused, in part, by comments filed by the Coastal Conservation League in earlier RIDE II projects like the extension of S.C. 31 to the south and the widening of S.C. 707. By law, projects in the RIDE program must be completed in the order they are approved by voters. The International Drive project is No. 13 of 15 projects.
Armstrong said she’s not certain DHEC will review their request.
“We basically wait for them,” she said of the next steps. “[The DHEC board] treats it as though they are not required to hear requests for final review conference. In practice, they hear about 10 percent of them. They generally do not hear these, but it’s a step in the process. It’s an opportunity for the DHEC board, if they think there might be an error in their staff decision, to correct that error.”
Jim Beasley, spokesman for DHEC, said he did not know if the board would consider the group’s request, nor did he know exactly how many requests are heard versus the total number filed.
According to the DHEC website, if a conference will be held, the clerk of administrative court will send a letter by certified mail to the Environmental Law Project, with copy to the other parties involved, informing the law project of the determination. The clerk will send notice of final review conference to the parties at least 10 days before the conference. The conference is open to the public.
Armstrong said if the board will not review their staff’s decision, the next option in the process is to go to the S.C. Administrative Law Court and ask them for a contested case hearing.
“Our intent is not to stop the project,” Armstrong said. “It’s to make sure it’s got the protections in place that fish and wildlife services says that it needs. This whole thing could end pretty quickly if there was an agreement on that.”
Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or on Twitter @TSN_JRodriguez.