Pickens County wedding venue sued over environmental damage allegations
April 9th, 2020
By Mike Ellis, Greenville News
An Upstate wedding venue, Arabella Farms, has been sued by an environmental group that alleges the venue has hurt trout fishing and recreation in the mountains of Pickens County.
The farm's owner, Ken Smith, said Thursday that he would review the lawsuit's language before commenting. The lawsuit was filed Monday but was not available online at a federal database until Thursday.
The lawsuit seeks to use the federal Clean Water Act to get the wedding venue to institute stormwater management practices and to remediate damage the environmental groups say have been done to the area.
Michael Corley, a lawyer and Upstate director of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, previously told The Greenville News it is not clear how the damage could even be fixed because it would require either taking heavy machinery into dense woods, damaging the woods, or an extensive bucket brigade of people to haul out all the sentiment now in the mountain streams.
Local and state regulators from three different agencies spent two years and have given at least four stop work orders in attempts to get the venue to comply with environmental regulations including properly managing stormwater.
The lawsuit says Arabella Farms did not heed the stop work orders and continued to damage the streams and recreation for neighbors and visitors. The venue is near one of the Upstate's most popular trout fishing spots.
Regulators have said the venue was uncooperative and did not make necessary environmental protections before construction or after being informed of serious problems, according to a review of documentation and stop work orders that were provided to The Greenville News in late 2019 and early 2020 in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.
Pickens County regulators once threatened fines of up to $1,000 a day but later entered into an agreement with the venue to avoid the fines.
State regulators said the venue had done long-term and possibly permanent damage to at least 1,000 feet of stream water at Jocassee Gorges, according to documents obtained by The Greenville News in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
In an interview in January at the venue, owner Ken Smith said he was cooperating with state regulators and declined to answer any questions.
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.
The lawsuit also questions the permitting process. Smith has presented the site as a retirement plot, a commercial wedding venue and an agricultural site, which could exempt him from certain environmental regulations.
The lawsuit is on behalf of Naturaland Trust, South Carolina Trout Unlimited and Upstate Forever, organizations that represent fishers and conserving more than 100,000 acres of land in the Upstate.