South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Wetlands bill represents compromise
March 7th, 2006

BY BO PETERSEN

The Post and Courier

Protecting isolated wetlands, a flash point in a regulatory war being fought by conservationists and property-rights proponents, goes to a state Senate committee hearing Wednesday.

The new bill is in some ways stronger and some ways weaker than a bill that stalled two years ago.

It's stronger because it protects wetlands as small as half an acre; the stalled bill proposed protecting wetlands 5 ares or larger. But the new bill is weakened by its leeway for farming, mining and other development and by its requirements for regulators, environmentalists say.

Isolated wetlands are freshwater swamps or pools not considered part of a stream flow. South Carolina has about 300,000 acres of them. They are habitat for rare plant species and considered important natural storm-runoff filters to maintain water quality. Homebuilders and others are looking to develop along their fringes.

Maybe the best chance the new bill has of getting passed is that nobody likes all of it. It is being introduced to the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources committee by committee chairman Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, who opposed previous wetlands bills.

It arrives in the Legislature as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a case that could determine whether isolated wetlands can be regulated by the states under the current federal law the states use. The bill would give the state its own regulations.

The new bill is one of those vinegar-and-oil mixes of sharply different proposals brought to Grooms by the Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Association of Realtors.

"This is a very balanced bill. I think this is as good as it gets. It's the moment of truth for wetlands," said Nancy Vinsonof the Coastal Conservation League.

"This is not the bill I would have written if I could play dictator. It's a bit weaker than the regulations protecting saltwater wetlands and marine wetlands. It's going to be better than the uncertainty we have now," said Jimmy Chandler, an attorney with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

"We're not 100 percent thrilled. Neither side is. I think it's a good compromise," said Nick Kremydas, the Realtors group's vice president.

Mark Nix, South Carolina Landowners Association director, said any legislation should wait on the Supreme Court ruling. "How do we determine which isolated wetlands are necessary wetlands and which ones are drainage ditches? Why do we pass legislation until we know what we're talking about?"

The bill joins a marsh island bridge regulation being considered in a General Assembly already taxed by contentious disputes over the state budget, property taxes and other issues. It is part of a larger fight over how closely conservation or development should be regulated that is intensifying in courts and the Legislature.

Grooms said, "Some of my concerns with the previous bill were taken care of with this bill. If I thought it didn't stand a chance of passage I wouldn't have introduced it."