A chief administrative law judge ruled in favor of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s green light of an Horry County project to expand International Drive – a project that has been challenged for years by environmental groups.
Horry County leaders have hailed the road construction, approved by county voters as a Ride II project, as needed to alleviate traffic and connect the fast-growing Carolina Forest community with S.C. 90.
Environmentalists and wildlife groups have challenged the route, saying the expansion of the dirt road currently in place will hurt the wetlands it cuts through and its wildlife inhabitants.
In his order released Thursday, Judge Ralph King Anderson III said he found “the actions of the department in issuing a Section 401 Water Quality Certification and Coastal Zone Consistency Certification to … Horry County are supported by substantial evidence and the applicable regulatory and statutory requirements.”
We’re hoping that things can now progress forward and we won’t be met with any obstacles because certainly this is a project that is a decade overdue.
Felicia Soto, S.C. Highway 90 resident and supporter of the International Drive project
The Coastal Conservation League last summer protested a water quality permit issued by DHEC 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.
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.
Attorneys for the Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Wildlife Federation, which were both fighting the project, stated in court proceedings that the new road would have harmful impacts on the wetlands.
But Anderson said the group failed to produce evidence to prove or quantify the impacts to water quality they predicted. With best management practices in the road’s construction, he noted that “any water quality impacts from the proposed activity would be temporary” and that Horry County and DHEC gave assurances that no water quality standards would be violated.
“We’re excited about it. We stood firm on our beliefs,” Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said on the ruling. “We’re excited for the groups of people living in Carolina Forest, along International Drive and Highway 90. This is a victory for them.”
Felicia Soto, who lives off of Highway 90, said she was excited too and that the victory will come when people living off of Highway 90 and in Carolina Forest or firefighters on the way to a fire call in the area will no longer have to battle traffic or drive the long way around in emergencies.
“Our only evacuation from this area (on S.C. 90) is (S.C.) 22,” Soto said, adding that for people needing to get to Grand Strand Medical Center, S.C. 22 is not a direct route. International Drive, she said, “is a road that’s needed and it certainly will reduce also the amount of traffic” on other heavily congested routes.
“We’re hoping that things can now progress forward and we won’t be met with any obstacles because certainly this is a project that is a decade overdue,” she said.
I think we would have been surprised if the decision would have been otherwise. Even if we are not surprised we need to take the time to fully review his decision.
Nancy Cave, of Coastal Conservation League
In April, the Coastal Conservation League pledged to appeal any decision in favor of the project to a higher court.
“We’re hoping at this point because of the strong ruling by the judge that there won’t be an appeal,” Lazarus said.
Nancy Cave of the Coastal Conservation League said they haven’t decided what their next step will be.
“We’re in the process of reviewing the order both our lawyers and myself and the Wildlife Federation,” she said. “We will look at it and see what the judge had to say and do the analysis that needs to be done and then make a decision on what our next step will be.”
Cave said that she wanted to make sure everyone involved had a chance to read the full order before a decision is made, but she wasn’t surprised by the judge’s ruling.
“I think we would have been surprised if the decision would have been otherwise,” she said. “Even if we are not surprised we need to take the time to fully review his decision.”
The International Drive project could be delayed another two years if the case is appealed to the South Carolina Court of Appeals.