South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Citizens step up to the plate and hit one home in coastal protection case
March 9th, 2007

David Lauderdale
[email protected]

It didn't get the attention of a MegaMillions lottery, but Lowcountry citizens won big in a recent court ruling.

A court upheld one of South Carolina's most enduring coastal protections: Thou shalt not touch the Spartina grass. That is, don't mess with the saltwater marsh -- don't dredge it and don't fill it.

Thomas Dewey Wise was accused of altering the marshes of South Fenwick Island in Colleton County -- placing fill and pipes, among other things, into it without a state permit. Ninth Circuit Court Judge Roger M. Young ordered him to remove those materials and restore the site to its original condition within 60 days.

If that name sounds familiar, Wise was a state senator who co-sponsored the 1977 Coastal Zone Management Act and served on the first Coastal Council designed to enforce it. On Feb. 20, he lost a suit accusing him of violating that very act. He plans to appeal.

But the case represents another victory that may be greater -- and it hits home in booming southern Beaufort County.

It establishes that if state regulators won't enforce the law, citizens can go to court to correct a violation.

The suit was brought by the Coastal Conservation League, a grass roots, nonprofit organization based in Charleston. Its mission is to protect the natural environment of the coastal plain and enhance and protect our quality of life.

James "Jimmy" Chandler Jr., president of the nonprofit S.C. Environmental Law Project in Georgetown, argued the case. He told me that to his knowledge this is the first time citizens have intervened in enforcing the law that protects our coastal "critical area," or saltwater area.

Citizens often intervene in the permitting process. But law enforcement has always been handled by the state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management -- even when citizens are the whistle-blowers.

But the law says "any person adversely affected" can ask the court to restrain a violation. The suit was brought on behalf of five Coastal Conservation League members who fit that description.

Southern Beaufort County has a lot to gain. Our saltwater area reaches far inland from the sea, meaning we have a large swath protected by the coastal law. Also, our invaluable natural resources are under assault by the breakneck pace of development. Citizens long for a louder voice in shaping the local way of life. This suit shows they can have it.

The town of Bluffton, or Beaufort County, could stand in as a "person adversely affected" by violations and seek help from the courts. This should embolden local governments to see that environmental regulations are strictly enforced.

And this case means citizens have a new reason to join, and financially support, grass roots organizations in our community and those that succeeded in this case. By working together, citizens have a more powerful voice. Together, we can be better watchdogs and have a practical way to fight to save the Lowcountry.

Lawsuits are not easy or cheap. This one has taken three and half years, with a potential for another year or more in appeals. But grassroots oversight and dogged determination are needed in our community more than ever.