International Drive delay will be at least two more years

Conflicting bear population reports muddle International Drive hearing

Nancy Cave with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League discusses their case for protecting bears in the Lewis Ocean Bay preserve.
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Nancy Cave with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League discusses their case for protecting bears in the Lewis Ocean Bay preserve.

Construction of International Drive will be delayed at least two more years because of a court battle with environmentalists who oppose building the road to link Carolina Forest with S.C. 90, county officials say.

And that’s if the county wins all legal challenges. Losing the case would send the five-mile road project back to the drawing board, or scuttle it altogether.

A decision on the first legal challenge in the Administrative Law Court is expected by July, but Horry County officials who want the road built, and the Coastal Conservation League which does not, have each pledged to appeal that decision to a higher court.

The first court challenge has already delayed the project a year, and Horry County Attorney Arrigo Carotti says it would take at least two years for the case to make its way through the South Carolina Court of Appeals.

The state Supreme Court only accepts a limited number of cases, but if the case did advance to the higher court, Carotti estimated that would add another two years to the delay.

Felicia Soto, one of several residents who live along S.C. 90 and support the road project, said she’s disappointed that it is taking so long for road crews to break ground on construction.

“We’ve waited 10 years, but if we have to wait another few years, what will be, will be,” Soto said. “There’s nothing we can do but wait it out, but we’re not happy on this end about it at all.”

“The fact that we really don’t matter is sad,” Soto said. “We heard what they said in the courtroom, and that is that bears are more important than we are.”

There’s nothing we can do but wait it out, but we’re not happy on this end about it at all.

Felicia Soto, S.C. 90 resident

The Coastal Conservation League last summer protested a water quality permit issued by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, and asked the State Administrative Law Court to decide whether the permit should have been approved.

That hearing was held for more than a week in February, with additional testimony spilling over into March. Lawyers representing the environmentalists called numerous witnesses to also testify that bear tunnels should be constructed underneath the road that would wind alongside the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.

County officials originally planned to build the tunnels and fences, but concluded that the population of bears had dwindled significantly since a 2009 wildfire ravaged the area and that eliminating those measures would save $3 million.

“It’s really sad that both sides couldn’t meet halfway down the road,” Soto said. “But the saddest part is the cost continues to grow each year.”

Officials expect the court challenges will add to the price tag of construction, which now stands at $15.5 million, but say they won’t know the full cost until the litigation is complete.

$15.5 MillionInternational Drive costs

“Our position has been to advertise the bid for construction 30 days after we receive the permit,” said Steve Gosnell, assistant county administrator of infrastructure and regulation.

Delays caused by objections from environmentalists in 2013 over construction along Carolina Bays Parkway, which was ultimately tied to construction of S.C. 707, cost taxpayers more than $15 million, Gosnell said.

Nancy Cave, north coast director of the Coastal Conservation League, said it’s not their intention to delay road construction, and that litigation now could save taxpayer dollars in the long run.

Alvin Taylor, DNR director, testifies on the 2009 fire's impact on bear populations near International Drive.

“Until the court makes its final ruling, then there should be no action taken on the road,” Cave said. “Because if the road was allowed to proceed and the court ruled that the road either had to include animals crossings or be reduced in size, or whatever the court might rule, that would change the road. If the wetlands had already been impacted by construction, the cost to taxpayers would be significant.”

“They might be forced because of the court ruling to dig up whatever they were building and repair and restore the wetlands,” Cave said.

$3 millionBear tunnel, fencing costs

Mark Lazarus, Horry County Council chairman, says the court fight over International Drive could also be a factor in the upcoming November election, when voters will decide whether to approve a one-cent sales tax to raise nearly $600 million for construction of a dozen major roads in the RIDE III project.

“Results drive support,” Lazarus said. “Hopefully, citizens will see all the results from prior ride programs and understand that this one project is not our fault.”

But that’s not the only challenges facing RIDE III.

Eddie Dyer, chairman of the Ride III Sales Tax Commission, says he expects some of the projects included will also face opposition from environmentalists.

Cave said they don’t plan to oppose RIDE III as a whole, but confirmed they are against the Southern Evacuation Lifeline project, of which $25 million of the raised funds would be used for right-of-way purchases and environmental studies.

The 27-mile project would create a link between the South Strand and inland at a total construction cost of $650 million. The road is expected to connect with S.C. 707 and lead north near the Waccamaw River and a national wildlife refuge.

“The comment we’ve made for umpteen years is that we feel it’s a developer’s road and that it will cause further congestion, it’s not necessary, and will have significant environmental impacts,” Cave said.

I don’t believe they really presented the case they were supposed to be presenting — it was more about bears than water quality.

Mark Lazarus, Horry County Council chairman

Dyer said some of that proposed route would run through environmentally sensitive areas, but that plans are for several sections to have limited access.

“They don’t like the Southern Evacuation Lifeline because they believe it will open up (the area) to development,” Dyer said. “The free market determines that — whether there’s too much development or whether or not people are going to buy homes in a certain area.”

Development is one of the reasons environmentalists are opposing International Drive. With more than a dozen curb cuts drawn into the road construction plans, up from the original two, they say the project is not just about the bears, but their future habitat.

Lazarus says the court challenge that erupted over the water quality permit veered off course during the February hearings to focus on bears, and the judge also questioned during the proceedings whether bears needed to live in the water to survive.

“I don’t believe they really presented the case they were supposed to be presenting — it was more about bears than water quality,” Lazarus said. “I believe it should all be thrown out, but we’ll have to wait and see what the judge’s thoughts are on that.”

Felicia Soto discuses the International Drive controversy and bears versus development.

Audrey Hudson: 843-444-1765, @AudreyHudson

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