Court Approves Road through Prime Bear Habitat Along the Coast
July 8th, 2016
By Sammy Fretwell
COLUMBIA, SC Boosters of a coastal road that would cross prime bear habitat scored a significant victory this week in their quest to build the Myrtle Beach-Conway thoroughfare without substantial protections for black bears. A state administrative law judge ruled Thursday in favor of the highway and against environmentalists, who had said the road would unnecessarily imperil coastal bears and increase chances of collisions with cars.
Judge Ralph King Anderson III’s ruling delighted road backers, who have complained bitterly that conservationists were holding up a five-laned highway that is badly needed to ease local traffic congestion in the tourist-clogged Myrtle Beach area.
But the fight may not be over. Conservationists are considering an appeal of Anderson’s order. “While we are disappointed in the substance of the judge’s order, we have already identified several legal and factual flaws in his analysis,’’ the S.C. Environmental Law Project said in a news release Friday afternoon.
During the next month, the group will examine the ruling more carefully as it makes a final decision on an appeal, the law center said. The S.C. Environmental Law Project, a non-profit legal group, is representing the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Wildlife Federation.
At issue is whether the proposed Horry County highway must contain high fences and culverts beneath the road’s surface to prevent bear-car collisions. Environmentalists want the extra protections, but road boosters say it would drive the cost up by about $3 million.
Black bears are not common in South Carolina, but Horry and surrounding counties have some of the state’s highest populations. Motorists, some headed for Myrtle Beach, have for years crashed into black bears as the animals dart across county roads. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources initially insisted that the road include high fences and culverts to prevent collisions, but the agency later backed away after Horry County politicians complained. The road is projected to cost about $16 million. It would widen a dirt road adjacent to the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, a 10,000-acre natural area that traditionally has contained black bears. One former agency official testified in court last winter that he was pressured by a legislator not to push for bear protections.
Anderson’s ruling approves a water quality certification that the law project had challenged. Such certifications are needed before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can issue a wetlands permit. It was not known Friday when the Corps would act on a pending wetlands permit request. In his ruling, Anderson said road opponents didn’t prove that extra protections for bears would make any difference. The opponents “want Horry to add $2 or $3 million to the cost of a road project based upon speculation as to bear activity, with no reasonable assurance the measures would protect bears or motorists.’’ Anderson said a 45 mph speed limit on the road would provide adequate protection for bears.
Despite the prospect of more court battles, politicians in the Myrtle Beach area said they were glad the judge saw the case their way. “We’re excited about it. We stood firm on our beliefs,” Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus told The Sun News.