Conservationists appeal judge's decision in International Drive case
December 9th, 2016
By Charles D. Perry
Two conservation groups are appealing a federal judge’s decision to allow the construction of International Drive.
The S.C. Wildlife Federation and the Coastal Conservation League filed their appeal on Thursday.
“We are going to take this as far as we can,” said Nancy Cave of the Coastal Conservation League. “Because we feel very strongly that International Drive is going to have a significantly detrimental impact.”
The two groups had asked Judge Bryan Harwell to halt construction on the 5.6-mile stretch of road between Carolina Forest and S.C. 90 because of concerns about the project’s impact on nearby Lewis Ocean Bay Preserve and other area wetlands.
But Harwell sided with the county, which had argued the project balanced environmental concerns with public safety.
“The Court cannot ignore the need for the road and the project’s purpose to relieve significant traffic congestion, provide an alternate route for emergency responders, and create an additional evacuation route,” Harwell wrote.
International Drive has been in the works for more than a decade.
Horry voters approved the project in a 2006 sales tax referendum. Construction was supposed to begin in 2015, but environmental objections put the brakes on the work.
Conservationists first challenged the state certifications in court, and in July a state judge ruled in the county’s favor. The conservationists appealed that decision, meaning the state court process would be delayed for at least a year.
County officials, however, received the federal permits for the project and opted to begin work anyway.
That prompted the two groups to file a lawsuit in an effort to stop the county from working on the project. The lawsuit names the county, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as defendants, as well as certain Corps and EPA officials.
Some of the International Drive construction was halted in September when Harwell approved a temporary restraining order that prevented the county from filling in more wetlands for the road bed. The order also prohibited the county from clearing any trees on the Lewis Ocean Bay Preserve side of the project.
At an Oct. 28 hearing, the conservationists accused the county of violating that order and asked Harwell to find the county in contempt. The groups discussed that motion as well as their request for a permanent injunction to stop construction while their lawsuits went through the courts. They criticized the Corps’ decision to issue a permit for the project, which will impact 24 acres of wetlands.
After Harwell rejected the conservationists’ requests in a Nov. 18 ruling, the conservationists took their case to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals this week.
“We believe we have the law on our side,” Cave said. “We might not have the politics on our side.”
Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus could not be immediately reached for comment.
County officials are going through the bidding process for the final stage of International Drive construction, county spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said. Once a contract is awarded, construction should take 8-9 months to complete.