COLUMBIA -- Two legislators have taken steps that could change 30 years of established wetlands regulation along the S.C. coast.
Conservationists say the proposed changes could weaken state rules protecting Carolina bays and swamps from Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head Island. That could open thousands of acres of wetlands to development.
Supporters say the legislators only are trying to clarify a confusing set of rules.
State Reps. Bill Witherspoon, R-Horry, and Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, introduced a resolution last week that tells the state's environmental agency to enact new development rules to govern coastal freshwater wetlands.
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Witherspoon and Loftis took their measure to the House floor for debate this week instead of holding a public hearing in a House committee, as is often the case. That's an unusual step, particularly for sweeping changes to development rules, critics say. A committee hearing allows an airing of all sides of an issue before lawmakers vote.
"There is no way to get our side heard," said Cary Chamblee, a lobbyist for the state Sierra Club and Wildlife Federation. "To go directly to the Legislature on something this huge is pretty significant."
The Witherspoon-Loftis resolution does not have the force of law but tells the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to develop new rules for wetlands. Like other state agencies, the environmental agency needs legislative approval for its budget and is hesitant to anger lawmakers. The legislators' resolution favors "streamlining the environmental permitting process" along the coast.
Development rules governing wetlands are important in South Carolina, which has one of the highest percentages of swamps and bogs in the Southeast.
Wetlands control flooding, limit water pollution and provide wildlife habitat. But they also hinder development projects in high-growth coastal areas. Developing a new set of rules could open the floodgates to developing swamps and bogs, conservationists said.
Loftis said a recent court ruling cast doubt on the state's ability to regulate some wetlands, adding there isn't time to go through a committee hearing process before the legislative session ends in June.
Besides, he said, people already are aware of questions about the state's coastal development rules. "The issue has been ongoing for some time."
Attempts to reach Witherspoon, who represents part of the growing Myrtle Beach area, were unsuccessful Monday. He is chairman of the House environmental affairs committee. Loftis, a critic of what he considers overlapping state and federal regulations, also is a member of that committee.
The dispute centers on how South Carolina developed rules in the late 1970s to govern coastal freshwater wetlands. Instead of going through the administrative process used to develop regulations for salt marshes, the state used an alternative process.
Attorneys for developers, seeking permits to fill freshwater bogs, have challenged the legality of the wetlands rules. The latest challenge involved a proposal to fill 32 acres for a retail complex along the Horry-Georgetown county line at Murrells Inlet.
On Feb. 19, Administrative Law Judge John McLeod said the state's coastal management program didn't apply to isolated wetlands. His ruling also said the management program law was not developed properly, casting the law's validity into doubt.