No Extortion on International Drive

By Paul Gable

Horry County Council gave a resounding NO to the possibility of giving any money to The Nature Conservancy for extra mitigation on International Drive.

The new request came up during a meeting between Horry County officials and representatives from the Coastal Conservation League and the SC Wildlife Federation.

Essentially what was asked for was the county to pay The Nature Conservancy approximately $1.6 million so that agency could purchase land to be used ostensibly for wildlife preservation.

Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus ended the meeting after the new demand was made.

Lazarus reported on the International Drive project during the regular council meeting Tuesday night. He said he wasn’t going to give money from the taxpayers of Horry County to a private nonprofit organization so it could buy land.

It is probably not something that could legally be done either. International Drive is one of the projects paid for by the one cent local option sales tax (Ride II).

Ride II was approved by referendum of county voters in 2006. At that time, each project with the anticipated expenses associated with it was listed in the referendum. The county has already paid for the mitigation credits required by the US Army Corps of Engineers and SCDHEC for the project.

To expend extra dollars just to please conservation groups for land that is neither associated with the project nor required for mitigation certainly seems to be in conflict with state law on capital projects sales tax.

Lazarus was far from alone. Council members Johnny Vaught and Al Allen called the demand for money from the conservation groups extortion. Council member Gary Loftus said it was time to cut bait and council member Tyler Servant voiced support for Lazarus’ position.

The tactic has been used successfully when the Coastal Conservation League and several other conservation groups were successful in getting the SC Department of Commerce to pay $5 million so they would not contest the Boeing plant construction. It was also used to obtain a $5 million payment from the SC Ports Authority so no opposition would be forthcoming from the conservation groups on the Charleston Harbor dredging project.

Extortion is defined as “the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats.”

The threat to contest a project through the appeals process and, possibly, the courts unless money is paid certainly sounds like it meets this definition.

Horry County decided not to “pay to play” so the International Drive project probably faces several more years in legal processes before construction finally begins.

Horry County expected to pick up the final permits for the project from SCDHEC and the US Army Corps of Engineers one month ago. Those permits were stopped by a request for final review filed by the conservation groups with SCDHEC.

SCDHEC rejected the request. That rejection allows The Coastal Conservation League and SC Wildlife Federation to decide by August 29, 2015 whether to file a request for a contested hearing with the Administrative Law Court on the International Drive project.

It is expected the conservation groups will file the request with the Administrative Law Court.

What is especially frustrating for the county is it has done everything required for the project to be approved, yet these last minute new demands by the conservation groups continue to stall the project.

‘There oughta be a law.’

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