COLUMBIA — Legislation limiting the public's ability to challenge development on environmental grounds will soon head to Gov. Henry McMaster, who has pledged to sign it.
The state House voted 86-30 Tuesday to approve a bill setting a 90-day deadline for resolving challenges on environmental permits.
Currently, such challenges filed in the Administrative Law Court can put a project on hold indefinitely, which business groups contend are a delay tactic. Court decisions routinely take months.
"You can say the sky is pink in that lawsuit, but it stops projects in their tracks," said bill supporter Rep. Russell Fry, R-Surfside Beach. "That tool is used to run up the cost and deter businesses."
He and other House Republicans wanted to stop the clock at 30 days. Both sides agreed to send the 90-day compromise to McMaster after Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, threatened to tie up the debate with more than 400 prepared amendments. That left intact what the Senate passed last year, which also requires a hearing within 30 days of a challenge being filed.
If a developer proceeds on a permit granted because the 90 days lapse, under the compromise, the challenger could still win damages in court.
"This puts the risk on the developer," Smith said. "Even if they get a permit, they move forward at their own peril."
Environmental activists called the compromise reasonable.
"The 'automatic stay' works well as it is. It's a tool citizens can use to challenge bad permits," said Rikki Parker with the Coastal Conservation League. "There's nothing wrong with the way it's used now, but the bill passed today is an acceptable compromise."
Conservationists have used the current system in battles over many high-profile projects, including the fight over building a wall and a road to a proposed development on Captain Sam's Spit on Kiawah Island.
State Chamber of Commerce CEO Ted Pitts applauded the compromise as good policy.
It "preserves citizens' rights to challenge government decisions while clarifying expectations and timelines," Pitts said. He contends current law allows "anti-business groups to take advantage of the system and delay economic development projects without legitimate reason."
A perfunctory vote in the House on Wednesday will officially send the bill to McMaster.