by Sammy Fretwell
Lawmakers are examining whether to ease coastal environmental rules that some Lowcountry officials say are hindering industrial development in counties that need jobs.
A bill that could loosen regulations protecting wetlands and rivers in much of Dorchester County is fueling the discussion.
Bill supporters say South Carolina’s coastal regulations should not apply to inland areas of Dorchester because those communities are much different geographically than areas closer to the Atlantic Ocean.
The bill would drop the county’s interior from regulation as a coastal area. Other lawmakers have expressed interest in broadening the legislation to include other counties.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, follows a request in January by Dorchester County Council to ease the rules so that the county’s inland areas aren’t “burdened” by the coastal law. Some county officials say they lost out on a Volkswagen plant because of wetlands regulations.
But opponents said that argument isn’t true – and they said industries have done well in locating in inland areas of the coast that have been regulated for years by tougher environmental restrictions. Aircraft manufacturer Boeing, for instance, is thriving in the North Charleston area, conservationist Dana Beach said.
“There are so many lapses of logic here, it’s hard to figure out where to begin the discussion,” he said after attending a legislative meeting on the bill Thursday in Columbia.
At issue is the state’s coastal zone management law, adopted in the 1970s. The law gives extra protection to the environment in eight coastal counties, including Dorchester. Those rules regulate plans to develop in wetlands and clear land along rivers, among other things.
If the Legislature adopts a bill to lift Dorchester County’s western areas out of coastal regulation, it ultimately could allow development in rare, wildlife-rich Carolina bays and isolated wetlands across the coast, conservationists said.
“This could unravel and undermine the entire coastal zone program,” Beach said. “There’s no way that if Dorchester pulls 90 percent of its land area out, we won’t see a similar effort on the part of Jasper, Berkeley and Horry counties. Maybe Georgetown, too.”
“Wetlands are what they are going after. They want indiscriminate ability to fill isolated wetlands,” Beach said.
State Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, said the idea of easing the rules for western areas of coastal counties has merit.
Hembree said South Carolina’s coastal law was intended to protect beaches and tidelands along the immediate coast. He said he’d like to know whether Horry County’s western section requires continued regulation as a coastal area.
“Let’s not just hit the easy button and say ‘Well, let’s regulate the whole county because it’s easy to do that – and subject people to regulation that doesn’t make sense,” Hembree said. “There’s no purpose that has been served.”