Construction of Pickens County wedding venue, farm put it at odds with environmentalists
January 13th, 2020
By Mike Ellis, The Greenville News
A Pickens County wedding venue with sweeping mountain views was given multiple stop work orders and is accused by neighbors of allowing tons of dirt to spill into and clog popular trout streams, hurt wildlife and damage protected property.
Arabella Farms was uncooperative and did not make necessary environmental protections before construction or after being informed of serious problems, according to at least four stop work orders from three different agencies after more than a dozen site visits from state and local regulators who also were enforce federal rules.
Ken Smith, the owner of the wedding venue, met inside the recently-built venue barn for an interview Wednesday with The Greenville News, joined by his daughter, who runs the venue, and his son, who runs the farm.
He said he is working with state regulators and declined to answer questions. The regulators, from the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control, told The Greenville News they would not be able to comment on potential enforcement actions until the decisions are final.
Arabella Farms could soon be named in a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, according to a legal notice sent on behalf of owners of protected land beside the venue.
Pickens County officials, in early 2019, had threatened fines of up to $1,000 a day if the venue did not come into compliance with a stop work order. The county entered into an agreement with the farm a few months later in place of any penalties.
In 2017, the 67-acre site near the Sunset community in the foothills of South Carolina began to see its vegetation cut and the land graded to build a small agritourism site anchored by a large wooden barn built for events like weddings and reunions.
Smith had presented the site in permit applications as an agricultural or farm site, which would exempt him from many environmental regulations but it had been marketed on social media as a wedding venue prior to the start of construction. County officials led him to change it to a commercial site months after construction began, finding the main purpose of the site was not a farm but a venue.
Regulators said runoff from the site led them to try to get Smith to comply with environmental rules including getting permits and filing plans for how to minimize damage to neighbors and the waterways surrounding the venue.
The wedding venue is above three tributaries, which in turn feed into the Little Eastatoe Creek and Eastatoe River, which feeds the nearby Lake Keowee, which is a major source of drinking water in the Upstate.
In a January 2019 email, a state Department of Natural Resources employee in charge of Jocassee Gorge called what he saw a "terrible erosion issue."
"Folks, this is a pretty bad situation and it will take a long, long time for the stream to recover, if ever. It has permanently impacted over 1,000 feet of stream on Jocassee and much more on lands owned by Naturaland Trust," according to the email from Mark Hall.
Hall has not responded to phone and email requests for additional comment.
The first stop work order had already been made, in July 2018, when Hall sounded a further alarm.
The most recent stop work order was given in August 2019; most of the citations were for failing to file or follow plans for how to keep dirt from running off into neighboring properties and waterways when it rained.
Arabella Farms is in an ideal spot for a picture-worthy weddings. All the land around it is protected from development.
Its neighbors are Duke Energy, two pieces of protected property owned by Naturaland that were bought to be a conservation site and the Jocassee Gorges Management Area, which is described by the Department of Natural Resources as part of the state's premier mountain property.
A scenic view at Arabella Farms, but not to neighbors
Visitors to the venue will feel connected to nature, with a vineyard and the picturesque silhouette of mountains hanging in the distance over the tall trees of neighbors.
But the visitors may not see the small trout streams next door, which have been clogged in places with two feet of dirt that ran off the property due to poor environmental planning and construction, said Michael Corley, an environmental attorney who filed the legal notice on behalf of Trout Unlimited and Naturaland.
The notice is required to be filed 60 days before a lawsuit can be filed, the notice was filed on Nov. 14.
Corley said Arabella Farms has shown it is cheaper, and easier, to ignore environmental laws than to comply.
"They say life begins in the salt marshes for the coast," said Corley, of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project. "Life begins here, in the Upstate, in the springheads, in the headwater streams."
Corley said it is impossible to know how much damage has been done to the ecosystem and it could take years for the area to recover.
Clogging the tributaries and waterways can cut off oxygen and other resources for the smaller life that support trout and can change the course of the tributaries which makes it difficult for fish to move, said Wes Cooley, a member of Trout Unlimited who grew up in the area and has family living there.
He said a public fishing site near Arabella Farms, Dug Mountain, is one of the most popular in the Upstate and one of only a few that is accessible to people with disabilities.
State and local regulators have visited Arabella Farms more than a dozen times and have noted repeated frustrations with the progress or cooperation from the farm, according to records provided in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from several agencies.
State regulators from the Department of Health and Environmental Control declined to comment about pending enforcement actions but pointed to their own stop work orders from July, which say Arabella Farms disturbed land without seeking or getting permits required to protect waterways.
Those permits, National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems, are required by federal and state authorities for properties larger than one acre and for properties that could endanger public waterways.
Enforcement and changing plans
Corley said, in his legal notice about a potential lawsuit, that Arabella Farms has tried to have the best of both worlds by going ahead as an agricultural operation in some paperwork and a wedding venue elsewhere.
Arabella Farms first showed up as a small family operated farm, in paperwork filed with Pickens County in summer 2017.
As an agricultural site, the property would be exempt from many environmental regulations, according to the paperwork signed by Arabella's owners.
In November 2017, the site began to be promoted on social media as a wedding venue. By May 2018, at the urging of county inspectors, the plans for the venue were changed to be commercial.
Social media posts show that the venue was already near completion at the time.
Arabella Farms continued to present itself to the public as a wedding venue and to regulators as a small family farm.
In April 2019, Ken Smith, owner of Arabella Farms, wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in response to questions that the federal agency had about the site.
Smith said it was a small family farm, there had been no clear cutting of trees and his work was in compliance with Pickens County's stormwater regulations.
At the time of the letter, Smith had already changed the official designation of the site to commercial, satellite and other photos indicate there had been acres of land cut down and he was expressly not in compliance with the county's regulation, according to court documents.
In a September 2019 letter to state regulators Smith said construction at the site stopped in summer 2018, which was after he had agreed it was a commercial property in May of that year.
Smith said in the September letter that getting permits for storm water was no longer necessary because the land disturbances have already finished.