HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - A nearly six-mile stretch of road was scheduled to be widened and paved by 2013, but instead, it is snarled in a legal feud putting Horry County leaders at odds with conservation and wildlife activists.
WMBF News Anchor Michael Maely took a closer look at what both sides are fighting for, and the bill that one lawmaker hopes could speed up the International Drive project and others like it.
It's 5.6 miles of dirt and gravel, and just as gritty is the fight over getting International Drive paved. Those in support of the project say it would ease traffic on Highway 501 and help emergency responders reach people living along Highway 90. On the other side, environmentalists, like those with the Coastal Conservation League and SC Wildlife Federation, oppose the project as it's planned now because they say it would disrupt 24 acres of wetlands that are home to some endangered species and other animals, like bears.
Maely sat down with Nancy Cave, the North Coast Director of the Coastal Conservation League:
Maely: "They're saying, do you put a focus on human life, or wildlife?"
Cave: "If they, whoever they might be, the county, feel so strongly that emergency vehicles need to use the road, they had a solution in 2010, it was agreed upon, it was signed, it could have moved forward right then, and you'd have a road, today."
Cave said the contract agreed to back in 2010 included a two-lane road with three constructed passageways for wildlife. Then in 2013, Cave the county urged the Department of Natural Resources to enter a new contract, which expanded the project to be a five-lane road and eliminated the requirement for the wildlife passageway for bears and other animals in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.
"There is scientific evidence that animal crossings save lives, not only of the animals, but of the motorists," Cave explained.
"They're concerned about the bears and they want these bear bridges or tunnels, not sure why a bear is gonna cross at the tunnel, but that being said, bad idea," argued SC State Senator Greg Hembree.
Sen. Hembree questions the Conservation League's motives and tactics. "It's not so much whether they win or lose; they've won by delaying the project," he said.
Hembree said the Conservation League has indirectly accepted millions in taxpayer dollars on several projects, more than the law requires, for what's called wetlands mitigation. That's the process of replacing or repairing wetlands damaged during construction.
WMBF News did some digging and found a South Carolina Legislative Audit Council summary from April of last year. The General Assembly ordered the audit to see how the Coastal Conservation League's Trust used more than $5 million from the state for land disturbed in the Vought Aircraft Industries development in 2004, now the site of Boeing in North Charleston.
View this document here:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended $743,000 for the work, according to the report, leaving the League's Trust with more than $4.6 million above the minimum federal requirements.
WMBF News reached out to the Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation League, Dana Beach, who said most mitigation projects cost more than the minimum amount, and his group did not request the $5 million amount, state employees came up with that dollar figure.
But the report also states the way that much of the money was spent was "inconsistent" with wetlands mitigation standards. For example, the audit report calls it "unusual" that about half of the trust provided a grant to Ducks Unlimited to purchase an easement the group had already purchased.
Maely: "After the deal was made, there was some concern about how that money was spent, can you give a little perspective?"
Cave: "I can't because I don't know how the money was divvied out, or anything like that, but I as I said the Federal Government has taken, as far as I said, no action. The corps was completely satisfied with the negotiation, so um, I question…They're making it sound like it was illegal, and I do not believe that was the case."
WMBF News checked in again with Beach, who was part of the deal. He said the trust employees' spending was well-documented, and he said by using the money in an unconventional way, the Conservation League and Trust were able to save a total of 13,000 acres of wetlands - thousands more than the minimum amount of spending would have saved, he said.
You can find details on the Coastal Conservation League's financial details here.
But as for International Drive, Cave says she remains hopeful this road can lead to an agreement between both sides. "The CCL is willing to sit down and compromise," she said. "We tried twice to sit down with the county to find a compromise that we could both agree to."
Meanwhile, Sen. Hembree is trying to hold groups accountable before their attorneys file appeals. Right now, he said lawyers who oppose certain projects can file appeals without any foundation, and it immediately delays the permitting process.
"What they do, often times is they say, 'We're gonna do this unless you pay us, x amount of money,'" Sen. Hembree explained. "And that's been the nasty little secret about this; it's an environmental shakedown, and they've got this nuclear option that they can hang over local government, state government or private business heads and extract what they want out of that entity."
Hembree filed Senate Bill 165, which, in some cases, would mean claims would have to be found to be legitimate before the projects would be delayed. "So they have to do a threshold showing that they've got a legitimate claim, that there's some basis in proof," he explained. "They don't have to prove their whole case, but they've gotta have something to show that this is a legitimate claim."
That is reviewed by a judge, who will then make the determination whether to grant the injunction or not - it's not automatic.
Cave said she prefers the current stay process, which still allows appeals for both sides, yet preserves the wetlands, until a judge can eventually rule on the evidence. "Well to restore the wetlands is difficult, almost impossible, and very expensive, and it could be at the taxpayer's expense, if that happens," she argued.
Sen. Hembree still questions the group's protests. "I think this is bad ground to fight on, I mean there are those claims out there that are legitimate and I don't fault them for fighting those, but when you're picking on this when it's such a silly thing and it's quite obvious what you're trying to accomplish, and that's get money, maybe you should withdraw from the field and let progress move ahead," he said.
As for Sen. Hembree's bill to tighten up the appeal requirements, he says he hopes it will get to the House in this session.
Meanwhile, a judge is scheduled to weigh in on the International Drive appeal Tuesday in Columbia, and because of the hearing, county leaders did not have a comment about the details of this debate.
Dig Deeper - view complete documents from both sides of this debate below:
August 28, 2015 request for contested case hearing submitted by SCCL:
September 15, 2015 court document outlining a suit filed by the SC Coastal Conservation League against SC DHEC regarding changes to the International Drive Project:
September 29, 2015 Pre-hearing response statement filed by the Horry County Public Works:
DHEC's September 29 response statement:
Amended notice of hearing on February 16, 2016: