By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Sr. Staff Writer
The “WOW of South Carolina” took center stage on the grounds of the Kaminski House, located on the banks of the Sampit River in Georgetown on Oct. 10. South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP) Executive Director Amy Armstrong used the term to describe the watersheds, marshes, beaches, wetlands, winding streams, intertidal zones and the wildlife they foster during the tenth annual Wild Side Celebration. Mossy oaks draped with tea lights ringed the lawn of the centuries-old Georgian style home.
The Wild Side is a tribute to SCELP founder Jimmy Chandler and a celebration of SCELP’s many legal victories.
South Carolina Aquarium Director of Conservation Albert George opened the elegant affair by issuing a challenge to attendees. Kiawah residents Tammy and Jerry McGee would match any ad hoc donations up to $5,000, and he wanted to know if there were any takers. There were, but he didn’t know that when he introduced Armstrong and turned over the microphone.
She provided a brief history of SCELP and the many reasons it must continue seeking legal remedies for protecting South Carolina’s natural wonders.
“Ten years ago, our fight to protect Captain Sams Spit from a 50-house development had just begun. [I took] primary responsibility for the first trial in a legal saga that continues today, even after four decisions by the South Carolina Supreme Court. “Ten years ago, we were drafting briefs in the court of appeals in our Laurens County landfill case that we
would go on to win in the Supreme Court in following years, further cementing SCELP’s legacy in the waste wars that SCELP fought and won in this state.
“And, most fittingly for this year’s celebration of the WOW of South Carolina, 10 years ago, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court upheld an enforcement action against a landowner who illegally filled in a salt marsh to increase his lot size,” Armstrong said, citing a just a few examples.
Armstrong listed the ongoing litigation of Captain Sams Spit as a prominent aspect of the future of SCELP’s efforts, calling the next phase of their suit an “astounding” fifth trip before the South Carolina Supreme Court. There are other significant cases: fighting attempts to build in Folly Beach on land that didn’t exist before benefiting from a publicly funded re-nourishment project; removing abandoned houses from the public beach in Beaufort County; and opposing multiple developments proposed in flood plains and in wetlands.
“As developable high ground vanishes and the strong demographic and economic growth on our coast continues unabated, developers have increasingly turned to fragile and irreplaceable landscapes. This is particularly unfortunate at a time of accelerating sea level rise and associated coastal hazards, when adaptation to increasingly higher tides and storm surges would be challenging enough even without having to dedicate time and resources to fight poorly-sighted and harmful projects,” said Armstrong.
SCELP is also actively fighting to protect the precedents they set through Supreme Court rulings from being legislated away.
“We won a case in the South Carolina Supreme Court which ruled that all wetlands in the state had protections and could not be impacted without a state permit. The next legislative session, the Legislature stripped those protections, leaving only the weaker federal law in place and hundreds of thousands of so-called isolated wetlands vulnerable. We recognize that we must not only secure protection for our land and water through the legal system – we must ensure that they remain in effect and are implemented and enforced,” said Armstrong at the conclusion of her remarks.
The Island Connection called Armstrong for an update on Captain Sams Spit on Aug. 23. Her response to questions about why Kiawah Partners – also known as KP/Kiawah Development Partners – continues to go to court in the face of so many defeats was straight forward enough. She said they are a hedge fund set on maximizing profits, with approximately $150 million on the table, in terms of what they could make off The Spit, regardless of the fact that the area isn’t eligible for flood insurance and has at times been completely under water.
“A developer doesn’t care because once they develop it and sell the lots, they don’t have any liability or risk. That’s all put on the people that purchase it. We see that all over the state: ‘Wait. Nobody told us. What do we do? Why did this happen? Why didn’t anybody tell us?’ The developer is long gone, and the owner is left holding the bag,” she said.
Armstrong thinks it will be at least spring or summer of 2020 before the case actually goes before the high court again. SCELP is still in the briefing process, detailing its arguments. She told this reporter that both SCELP and KP have filed for extensions to this process. Each side is then entitled to file responsive briefs, after which it will take the court an estimated four to six months to schedule arguments. It could be as long as a year following that before an opinion is rendered.
“Yeah, it’s a dangerous place to build. ‘The wise man built on a rock and the foolish man built on shifting sand.’ It’s also the most important place in South Carolina for red knots to rest and feed, plovers to nest and both like this area, and there only three like it in the state. Development interferes with their ability to rest and feed, not to mention all the other species that call it home,” she said.
Armstrong vowed to fight for The Spit as long as she has breath. Don’t think money isn’t an issue here, though. She said SCELP is a nonprofit and costs are hard to establish, but she estimated a $1.5 million investment in protecting the spit is as good as any.
“It’s not like we do this all day every day, but we’ve been at it going on 11 years. That takes hundreds of hours. It’s a really expensive undertaking. A copy of the transcript (from the fourth hearing] cost $8,000 and we have to produce 18 copies of that,” Armstrong added.
According to information emailed by SCELP after The Wild Side, the McGees’ challenge was met. Augmented by ticket sales and a silent auction of donated prizes, SCELP raised close to $34,000 last month that will help continue the fight against the many Goliaths assaulting South Carolina for a bit longer.
“I think the best outcome for the state and its citizens would be for Captain Sams to be a permanent protected public resource. Whether it’s donated to a charity for the write-off or however it works out. There’s already an adjacent parking lot at Beachwalker Park. Maybe it could become part of the park system or a heritage preserve. There are certainly options for what could happen to that piece of property from the perspective of the broader public,” Armstrong said.
For more information on SCELP’s many conservation efforts and to find out about ways you can help, visit scelp.org/.