South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Vanna White played there as a child. Now, historic sand dunes threatened by new law
March 7th, 2019

By Sammy Fretwell, The State

COLUMBIA — With developers moving to bulldoze a cluster of rare sand dunes on the South Carolina coast, scores of people are fighting to save the ancient land formations before 31 high-end homes are built there.

The dunes, estimated to be 80,000 years old and forested with huge live oak trees, provide a respite for people who take walks through the lush landscape to escape the bustle of North Myrtle Beach.

But a recent change in state law is threatening efforts to protect Ingram Dunes — and that change is expected to affect other South Carolina communities seeking to stop unwanted development.

Under the new law, development projects like the one at Ingram Dunes can be built before legal challenges are settled in the state’s Administrative Law Court. Before the change, state law generally blocked construction work until a disputed case was resolved.

Now, after challenging state environmental permits that authorize the demolition of Ingram Dunes, a North Myrtle Beach citizens group has only 90 days under the new law to make its case in court. Most court disputes over development take longer than three months to be heard.

After three months, or early June, developers would be free to level the dunes, unless people fighting the proposal persuaded the court not to allow it — an argument that environmental lawyers say is hard to win in the state’s conservative Administrative Law Court.

The Ingram Dunes appeal, filed Monday, is believed to be the first test of the law on an environmental issue since the Legislature and Gov. Henry McMaster signed off on the pro-development bill last year, said attorneys familiar with the legislation.

Some North Myrtle Beach residents say they are suffering because of the Legislature’s decision to help developers.

“Something this precious needs to be looked at very carefully before it is destroyed,’’ said Damien Triouleyre, who is with Preserve Ingram Dunes, the citizens group that appealed to stop the project. “It needs a full hearing and 90 days does not allow for a full hearing.’’

The sand dunes, which in some spots reach 50 feet above sea level, are among the last large dunes in heavily developed Horry County, one of the nation’s top tourist destinations.

They are believed to be 80,000 years old and have been used as a defacto public park by many people, including Vanna White, the game show hostess who grew up in North Myrtle Beach, according to legal filings from the S.C. Environmental Law Project.

“Some of my fondest memories of growing up are playing in the Hillside Dunes,” White said in a Grand Strand magazine story last fall. “They are a treasure of North Myrtle Beach and should be preserved.”

Covered in live oak trees and other forest vegetation, the dunes stretch across nine acres and are several blocks off the oceanfront next to Hillside Drive in the Crescent Beach-Ocean Drive section of North Myrtle Beach. They are owned by the Ingram family, which runs a lumber business in Florence County. A family spokesman declined comment when reached by The State.

According to plans, the project would take about a year to complete. The development would be called “Ocean Peak,’’ and would involve the installation of roads, according to public records and research by the S.C. Environmental Law Project.

State Sens. Thomas McElveen and Dick Harpootlian, who are both lawyers, said the Legislature made a mistake in changing the law last year. Harpootlian, D-Richland, and McElveen, D-Sumter, said other communities will suffer as developers seek permission for a variety of projects, ranging from new buildings to landfills.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control considers thousands of environmental permits every year.

“It’s a terrible piece of legislation that should never have become law,’’ said Harpootlian, a Columbia resident who was not in the Legislature last year. “What it is going to allow is the destruction of our natural resources in the name of greed.’’

Amy Armstrong, a Georgetown lawyer representing Triouleyre, said she will press ahead with the case, even though it is more difficult under the new rules. She said it’s ironic that the change in the law last year was pushed by Horry County legislators who supported developers at the expense of many constituents.

Bulldozing the dunes means North Myrtle Beach will lose a scenic, park-like area, while suffering other consequences, she said. Some limited tree-cutting already has occurred on the dunes.

“If this project goes forward, it is going to exacerbate flooding,’’ she said. “You think about the volume of storm water those dunes can hold, then you completely flatten them. Then you pave them. You are doing exactly the kind of development that puts people in harm’s way.’’

The law passed the Legislature after Horry County leaders argued that legal challenges were holding up progress on the Grand Strand, particularly road projects that they said were needed to ease the area’s traffic congestion. They said it was unfair to automatically hold up worthwhile public projects through court challenges.

Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, is among the lawmakers who pushed last year to curtail legal challenges, even though some of his own constituents say they are being hurt by the new law. But Hembree, an attorney who said he favors protecting Ingram Dunes, said he doesn’t regret his efforts last year.

“It was such an unfair procedure,’’ Hembree said. “This effort was intended to level the playing field, to make it a fair process. I don’t really care what the question is, whether it’s Ingram Dunes or I-73’,’’ a freeway planned to Myrtle Beach.

Hembree said the law still allows citizens challenging a project to ask a judge to extend the 90-day ban on development — an argument Armstrong said is hard to win.

Gov. Henry McMaster’s office said the governor also stands behind his decision to sign the bill.

Hembree noted that saving Ingram Dunes might be accomplished in another way.

City and state leaders are now trying to raise the estimated $3 million to buy Ingram Dunes and make it a nature park. So far, they’ve come up with about $1 million from the city of North Myrtle Beach and the S.C. Conservation Bank, a state land protection agency. Hembree said he spoke to the Conservation Bank at one point about providing money to buy the land.

For many, the Ingram Dunes property simply needs protection, regardless of how it is saved.

“It’s a piece of property that has some historical value as far as the size of the dunes and the live oaks in the middle of a town that is growing rapidly,’’ state Rep. Bill Bailey, R-North Myrtle Beach, said. “Once it is gone, we’ll never have this opportunity again to protect it.. It’s a beautiful piece of landscape.’’

Triouleyere said the dunes mean a lot to North Myrtle Beach residents and many vacationers. Taking walks through Ingram Dunes give him peace that is sometimes hard to find.

“The whole thing is completely natural,’’ he said. “It gives you as sense of what the whole coast looked like at one time.’’

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