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DNR rejects SCDOT's I-73 wetland proposal

It didn't take long for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources' Board to reject the DOT's $450,000 wetland mitigation proposal. Without hesitation, the board accepted DNR director John Frampton's suggestion that he negotiate a better deal with newly named DOT director, Buck Limehouse.

Limehouse has experience working with the DNR on wetland issues before as he helped to broker a deal that allowed the state to purchase 9,167 acres of land on Sandy Island as compensation for lost wetlands during the construction of the Conway Bypass and Carolina Bays Parkway.

27 acres of the Little Pee Dee Heritage Preserve would be impacted by the construction of I-73. Also, another three acres would be impacted by the construction of a new SC 917 bridge. The DNR has stated that they do not want to block the construction of I-73; however, they do expect fair compensation.

The $450,000 mitigation proposal authored by interim DOT Director Tony Chapman suggested that the DNR use the money to purchase additional land in the state and cover increased management costs.

The Heritage Trust Advisory Board also filed a report regarding I-73 and found that "...it might be more practical to cross where an existing road already crosses the preserve, rather than disturb another portion of the Little Pee Dee River corridor."

Their conclusion agrees with the DOT's Environmental Impact Statement that concluded crossing the Little Pee Dee River at SC 917 would have the least possible environmental impact. The findings of the Heritage Trust Advisory Board and the DOT is also shared by 15 other state and federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Heritage board found four direct effects that I-73 would have on the preserve.
  1. Habitat loss in the taken acreage
  2. Habitat fragmentation that could affect wildlife movements. They commented that the fragmentation is one of the more challenging and difficult impacts to measure.
  3. Property management. Including the restrictions of controlled burning.
  4. Impacts on the character of the preserve. Noise, litter, pollutants etc.
The board did not put a monetary value on each of the four impacts.

SCDOT needs the approval of the DNR in order to file for construction permits. The Federal Highway Administration would typically require a special analysis of the crossing; however, if SCDOT gets approval from the DNR that provision would be waived.

Story:
I-73: Offer for preserve crossing rejected ---Myrtle Beach Sun News

See Also:
I-73 wetland proposal delayed to May 18
SCDOT to present I-73 wetland proposal on May 3rd
SC: Heritage Trust Board won't fight I-73 but expects compensation

Commentary:
After the past few months of claims that the DOT and DNR were working together towards a solution to this issue, it sure doesn't seem like much of a joint effort. In fact in interim SCDOT director Tony Chapman's letter to the DNR, it didn't have a feel of cohesion between the two agencies. In it, he wrote that the same taxpayers who allowed the state to purchase the land for the preserve are going to be paying for the construction of I-73 and that the DNR should give the land to the DOT. However because it is a sensitive issue and area, the DOT is going to offer $450,000 for it. Sounds pretty insulting, doesn't it.

So now there's a new leader at the DOT, Buck Limehouse. Limehouse, whose appointing to the position came with much fanfare and respect from SC politicians, has had dealings with the DNR before as the SCDOT Committee Chairman during the 1990s. Frampton's offering to directly negotiate with Limehouse over the compensation is a good step. As I mentioned in the article summary, it was Limehouse who led the way in the purchasing of over 9,000 acres of land on Sandy Island as compensation for wetland impact on both the Carolina Bays Parkway and Conway Bypass.

Another thing to note was Frampton again suggested that outside influences are watching this decision and that the possible solution to the matter will be precedent setting and if done incorrectly would have detrimental consequences to everyone. He's referring to the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) who has voiced its concern over the plan to build I-73 through the preserve.

But in the article some more information came out. SCDOT has been maintaining for sometime that their preferred corridor - and its routing through the preserve - has the least overall impact to the environment including the least amount of wetlands destroyed. The Heritage Trust Board seems to agree with stating a crossing further south could have more interruption to wildlife than building the Interstate where a highway already crosses the river. The article also mentions that this theory is shared by 15 other state and federal agencies including the EPA. Will the SELC take that into consideration or legally challenge the route is unknown, of course an agreement between SCDOT and SCDNR has to be reached first.

Finally, the SELC has stated that SCDOT had ignored Section 4(f) of the Federal Transportation Act of 1966. Which basically says newly constructed highways can not damage nature preserves unless there is no other viable alternative. The SELC says that there are - specifically building the route along SC 9 and SC 501. A representative of the SELC has stated that with these requirements SCDOT's I-73 routing proposal would be "very tricky" to meet the legal standards.

But with a member of the Federal Highway Administration, Shane Belcher, telling the DNR's board that their approval will allow a special analysis to be bypassed, the SELC's objections may hit a roadblock.

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