International Drive hearings conclude, but final outcome won’t come quickly
March 16th, 2016
BY AUDREY HUDSON
Testimony concluded in a Columbia courtroom this week over the dispute to build International Drive, but it’s expected to take weeks for the judge to hand down a decision, and even then there’s no assurance that construction would begin soon. No matter which way the judge rules, his decision can be appealed to the state Supreme Court causing further delays, and both sides appear determined to bring the issue to the high bench.
“We’re going to take it as far as we can take it,” Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught said when asked if the county would appeal a loss. “It’s not my decision, but I’m pretty sure we will,” Vaught said. “We don’t think we’re going to lose, but we’re not going to give in to them. We’re dug in and we’re not going to change, so we’re going to stick to the course, however long it takes.”
Amy Armstrong of the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which represents environmentalists opposing the road project, says she “anticipates” they would appeal any decision in Horry County’s favor. “It’s hard to say without seeing the order,” Armstrong said. “But, we always prepare our cases in anticipation of an appeal.” Lawyers are now waiting on a transcript of the court hearings that began last month, then both sides have 30 days to write proposed orders for the judge to decide which side will prevail. “He reviews those and looks at the facts. He is under no obligation to make a decision in any time frame,” Armstrong said. Armstrong said it’s been her experience that a decision could come within a minimum of three months, but could stretch out longer. “It’s anyone’s guess,” Armstrong said.
Stan Barnett, the lawyer for Horry County Public Works, declined to comment on when a decision would be rendered, but acknowledged it would take at least a month. The battle to build International Drive heated up last summer after a dispute over expanding the project from a proposed two-lane road to four lanes to connect Highway 90 with Carolina Forest. The price tag has already reached $16.5 million, but environmentalists argue that bear tunnels should be constructed underneath the highway at an additional cost of $3 million.
Horry County officials maintain that the bear population in the nearby Carolina Ocean Bays Heritage Preserve has dwindled over the past several years, and said no to the tunnels. The Coastal Conservation League showed its objection to the project by appealing the required permits to the state’s Administrative Law Court in Columbia, effectively placing an indefinite hold on the project until it is resolved by the courts. Construction of the road project was approved nearly a decade ago by Horry County residents through a Nov. 7, 2006 referendum to impose a one-cent sales tax to pay for this and other road projects. International Drive construction was scheduled to begin in 2012 with a 2013 completion date, but this and other road projects were delayed for two years when the environmentalists objected to the permitting process for work on S.C. Highways 707 and 31. Construction was set to begin again last year and would have been completed by the end of this year or early in 2017.
The judge suggested during the proceedings that he sided with Horry County on the question of whether a water quality certification should have been approved. The Coastal Zoning Certification is still an outstanding issue that the judge is expected to resolve — whether the population of the black bears was taken into account when that permit was issued. The court proceedings began Feb. 16 and were scheduled to last only three days, but the hearings bogged down with disputes that took hours to resolve over the qualifications of some witnesses. Once qualified, several witnesses could barely finish a sentence before either side was objecting, forcing the judge to constantly bring the proceedings to a halt. The hearings stretched into the following week, and then were put on hold until March, when a final witnesses testifying on behalf of the environmental groups testified Tuesday. A medical emergency prevented the witness from testifying in February, Armstrong said.