Horry County won’t have to bow to bears for road, court rules

A large black bear roams just outside the town of Hollywood in this 2009 photograph.

The state Administrative Law Court ruled against the Coastal Conservation League and S.C. Wildlife Federation in their quest to halt the development of a Horry County roadway that they contend would threaten local black bears without tunnels under it for them to traverse.

In August, the S.C. Environmental Law Project challenged certifications issued by the Department of Health and Environmental Control for paving and expanding International Drive, an impassable 5.6-mile dirt road on the southwestern border of the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.

The proposed roadway, a $15.5 million project years in the making, was intended to alleviate traffic congestion for residents in the fast-growing Carolina Forest Community. But the Coastal Conservation League and S.C. Wildlife Federation argued the project would harm the area’s wetlands and wildlife, including a coastal population of black bears.

In his order, issued Thursday, however, Chief Administrative Law Judge Ralph King Anderson III wrote that the groups “failed to demonstrate that the proposed project will negatively impact water quality” or “permanently alter the aquatic ecosystem” in the region. Anderson also said the groups “failed to meet their burden of proving that a significant negative impact on wildlife stocks will result from this project.”

“I think he cherry-picked particular facts,” said Amy Armstrong, an attorney for the S.C. Environmental Law Project, representing the Coastal Conservation League and S.C. Wildlife Federation. “Those statements are absolutely not reflective of the substantial evidence presented to this judge.”

For example, Horry County and the Department of Natural Resources originally agreed to install three “bear tunnels” that black bears could use to pass under International Drive, according to Anderson’s order. But DNR later concluded that the tunnels were no longer necessary due to the declining population of black bears in Lewis Ocean Bay in the aftermath of a 2009 wildfire.

State estimates show a population of about 10 bears in the area in 2014, according to one media report.

In his order, Anderson said a lower speed limit of 45 mph was a “much more practical means” of protecting bears and drivers from potential collisions.

“There’s no evidence that 45 mph speed limit will prevent bears from being killed,” Armstrong said. “If it’s a rainy night, if it’s dark out, if it’s cloudy or foggy, a lot of different circumstances can affect a driver’s ability to see and react to objects in the roadway. ... There are so many factors, it’s not even logical.”

Nancy Cave of the Coastal Conservation League said her organization is still reviewing the order and will decide later whether to mount an appeal. But if the order stands unchallenged, Cave worries building a high-speed road will begin the “slow death of Lewis Ocean Bay.”

“I think the issue of great concern is that building this road will basically make Lewis Ocean Bay an island surrounded by major highways,” Cave said. “And so what you then will see over years is Lewis Ocean Bay and its vibrancy and ecosystem will die if animals cannot move.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764.