Campaign rhetoric was unfair to Coastal Conservation League

Parts of the Cooper River basin are being protected under easement thanks to an collaboration between S.C. Ports and the Lowcountry Land Trust. (Provided)

With the election more than a week behind us, it’s worth reflecting on the Charleston mayor’s race. It’s unfortunate that the campaigns shortchanged issues that are critical to our city.

Instead, the candidates squandered time, money and civic energy trying to convince the voters that they were more committed to extending I-526 than their competitors were, believing that this issue would decide the election.

This I-526 obsession peaked before the runoff, when Rep.Leon Stavrinakis relentlessly disparaged John Tecklenburg’s former service on the Coastal Conservation League board and implied that John was against the I-526 extension. In light of that confusing debate, we would like to present a clear perspective on the role the League plays in preserving the environment and the quality of life of the South Carolina coast.

The Conservation League began working on growth management in the early 1990s, in response to a decade of runaway development. We launched a public education initiative that eventually provided the platform to pass Charleston County’s award-winning comprehensive plan in 1999, followed by the unified development ordinance in 2001. Today, this plan and ordinance protect the farms, forests and wetlands that define our region, our history and our way of life. While not perfect, they are still, head and shoulders, the best growth management standards ever enacted in South Carolina, and among the best in the Southeast.

The Conservation League has consistently focused on the importance of smart infrastructure investments. Working at the local and federal levels, we averted the threat of I-73, a new interstate that was initially planned to plow through the middle of Mount Pleasant, and then the Francis Marion National Forest.

In 1999, the Global Gateway port terminal, which would have been the largest new container terminal in the nation in decades, was proposed for the southern end of Daniel Island. In collaboration with citizens on the Cainhoy peninsula and in Mount Pleasant, we led a three-year long effort that concluded with the Legislature wisely directing the new terminal to the old Navy Base. Unlike Daniel Island, that site has rail and interstate connections nearby.

This year, with our conservation colleagues at the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Lowcountry Land Trust, we and the S.C. State Ports Authority (SPA) reached agreement on the best way to mitigate the impacts of the harbor deepening. The result was a program to expand the protection of historic properties along the East Branch of the Cooper River, thus preserving the natural environment and some of America’s earliest cultural landmarks.

We worked with the state Department of Commerce to expedite the approval of the first Boeing plant (then owned by Vought/Alenia). By creatively and efficiently deploying wetland mitigation funding, we and our partners at Ducks Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy secured permanent protection for 13,000 acres along the historic and threatened Ashley River. Just last year, this cooperative strategy protected another 4,000 acres in the Francis Marion National Forest, as Boeing sought permits to expand its North Charleston facility.

Less well known is the Conservation League’s leadership on a variety of initiatives in Charleston to reduce traffic congestion, including the Maybank Highway pitchfork, planning charrettes on the Glenn McConnell Parkway, and extensive work on bicycle, pedestrian and transit improvements.

In cooperation with South Carolina’s two investor-owned utilities and electric cooperatives, we helped draft and pass the state’s landmark solar energy legislation, propelling the state from the back of the pack in renewable energy to a national leader. And GrowFood Carolina, South Carolina’s first and only local food hub, is now a lifeline for small farmers in the Lowcountry seeking access to consumers in the Charleston metro region.

Yes, the Conservation League does occasionally litigate. Represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, we appealed the Navy Base terminal permit because the initial plan did not include a rail connection (which the SPA claimed its customers did not want.) We settled the lawsuit when the authority agreed to allow rail and to implement a program to promote cleaner trucks.

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Today, the SPA justifiably brags about both the rail-supported inland port and the clean truck program, as the South Carolina Public Railway moves ahead on an intermodal yard to serve the new terminal.

We felt it was important to review these important conservation projects in the region. They represent just a fraction of the Coastal Conservation League’s accomplishments over the past quarter century. Working together with our partners in the Lowcountry, we have truly changed the course of history, and vastly for the better.

Charleston, under our new mayor, faces daunting challenges. We look forward to a depressurized atmosphere in which rational, fact-based analysis converge with creativity, vision and inspiration, all leading toward a better and more livable Charleston for this and future generations.

Margot Rose is chair of the Coastal Conservation League. This column was also signed by five former CCL chairs: William C. Cleveland, Andrea Cooper, Carol B. Ervin, Roy Richards Jr., and Charles L. Wyrick Jr.

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