This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. See the full interview below.
Amy Armstrong, Executive Director and General Counsel, started working for SCELP in September, 2002, after receiving a competitive two year fellowship from Equal Justice Works, formerly the National Association of Public Interest Law. Once her fellowship ended, she became a staff attorney at SCELP, a position she held for over eight years until the untimely death of SCELP's founder, Jimmy Chandler. Amy graduated from University of South Carolina in May 2002, with a Juris Doctor and Master´s in Earth and Environmental Resource Management. She is a Liberty Fellow and also served as a municipal court judge for the City of Georgetown.
Amy received her B.S. in Biology from the University of Michigan in 1992. Before attending law school, she worked with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, managing a population of federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. She grew up in Columbia and now lives in Pawleys Island with her dog, Roxanne. She enjoys kayaking, drawing, birding, playing the piano, cooking, and reading on the beach.
South Carolina Environmental Law Project is a nonprofit public interest law firm. Its mission is to protect the natural environment of South Carolina by providing legal services and advice to environmental organizations and concerned citizens and by improving the state’s system of environmental regulation.
This interview was recorded on August 6, 2020.
- SCELP: https://scelp.org/
- SCELP Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/scelp.org/
- SCELP on Instagram @scelp_org
- Twitter: @scelp
- Sierra Club Files Lawsuit Over Expired Permits At 3 South Carolina Coal Plants: https://scelp.org/stories/view/397
- Activist Groups Push Back On Long Savannah Project Citing Wetland Development: https://scelp.org/stories/view/400
- Contested SC Eco-Resort Plan, Flagged As ‘Greenwashing,’ Up For Key Decision Soon: https://scelp.org/stories/view/399
- Green Diamond development site flooded: https://www.thestate.com/news/local/article38269812.html
Fiona Martin (FM):
Welcome to The Eco-Interviews. Today, we are with Amy Armstrong, who's the Executive Director and General Counsel for the South Carolina Environmental Law Project. Welcome, Amy. How are you doing today?
Amy Armstrong (AA):
I'm great. How are you doing?
I'm doing great. I'm excited to speak to you about the work that SCELP does. But let's start out with you introducing yourself, what you're all about. Then if you can tell us a little bit more about the South Carolina Environmental Law Project and what you guys do.
Sure. I'm glad to. I'm an attorney, obviously. I've been working with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project or SCELP for 18 years. We've been around for approximately 33 years. We've called it a “Project” because when Jimmy Chandler, my predecessor, started SCELP, it was really to address a few environmental problems that he saw that were arising from newly enacted laws. I mean, this is back in the '80s when some of our first environmental laws on the federal and certainly the state level were beginning to be implemented to protect our natural resources.
We were realizing that we weren't protecting them and we were putting people at risk, development in unsafe places. We were destroying really the goose that laid the golden egg by destroying and impacting our salt marsh ecosystem and are not just the natural environment that I think make South Carolina really special. That's how SCELP started. We've grown ... Then it was just Jimmy for 11 years by himself as the only employee of SCELP. Since then, we've grown to five attorneys and four support staff. We've got a Greenville office, a Mount Pleasant office, and I'm here in our Georgetown home office.
Really what we do, sometimes I like to tell my niece and nephews when they were younger, I'd tell them that your aunt is a lawyer for the trees, and the birds, and the bees, and the wildlife that don't have a voice for themselves and can't speak for themselves. Sometimes they need lawyers in the courtroom to defend them. That's really the role we play. We do it by representing citizens groups, community groups, environmental organizations, a lot of times ad hoc groups that form around particular projects that are going to impact their communities. We provide pro bono legal services on issues throughout the state of South Carolina. I worked as the staff attorney at SCELP for eight years. Then when Jimmy Chandler, my predecessor and SCELP's founder passed away in 2010, I took over as the Executive Director.
Wow. Sounds like you guys are doing some great work and I look forward to diving into some of the cases in particular. You yourself are an attorney. But I see here that you also have educational history in biology. Correct? You worked for the SC Department of Natural Resources.
I did. I worked for DNR for several years after college and got really connected with some amazing people doing work in the state, working with the Heritage Trust System, which is really the highest designation that our state has for protected lands. It was my experiences working at DNR really guided my decision to go to law school. I was working with an endangered population of birds called red-cockaded woodpeckers around the state, and it was a lot of fun. I got in a car accident when I was working at DNR, and that left me a paraplegic. I use a manual wheelchair now. I had to think of a different way to continue to do conservation work that wouldn't involve me being out in the woods chasing birds around all day.
I decided that if I could take my passion and desire to protect and conserve, our things that I love about South Carolina, the wildlife, the birds, vegetation, trees, just the outdoors that I could maybe find a different way to do that, aside from being on the ground that I could use legal tools. That's when I decided to go to law school.
Wow. That is an amazing story. I didn't know all that background. Thank you for sharing that with us. I definitely thought it was interesting that you had the science background and then moved into law. It was that combination of your environmental experience and then bringing it into a legal setting, so fantastic. SCELP is at the forefront of protecting us from polluters and bad actors. Most of us, well, I'm going to say me, I can't speak for everyone, but we float through life thinking that we are protected from dangerous things. We don't think the items on the shelf are here to poison us or that the factory down the street is doing anything of any harm because, of course, there's laws and regulations in place to protect us from that. But in reality, I think there's a lot of ... or I'm finding out there's regulations that aren't enforced.
I found on your website something that you're involved in. Three of South Carolina's coal-fired power plants are operating on outdated water pollution permits. Not just a year outdated. The Cross Generating Station expired in August 2010, the Winyah Generating Station expired in July 2011, and Wateree Steam Station which is about 10 miles downriver from me, because I'm on the Wateree, expired on December 2012. How are these plants allowed to operate in that way? How does SCELP step into rectify the issue?
Yeah. I want to get to that. First, I want to just echo what you said about thinking that we've got these agencies that are there protecting us. I mean, there's a lot of pressure coming from industry, from developers, on the regulatory agencies. They're not always following the rules. The rules aren't always enforced properly. They may not be applied properly. Then there are also a lot of loopholes, which is really what's led to the situation with the generating plants. I think it's really ... that's the role that SCELP plays is that we need to make sure that our environmental laws are properly implemented and enforced for the protection of the public health and welfare.
Specifically, with respect to those three coal-fired plant permits, they're called NPDES or National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits. They're permits under the Clean Water Act. They allow these generating facilities to discharge a certain amount of pollutants into the water. Now in 2015, there were new standards passed. They're called Effluent Limitation Guidelines that really impose higher standards on.
They have higher standards on what can be in that effluent, in the discharge. These facilities are operating under old permits that don't have these new standards in place. How they're allowed to do it is as long as you apply for a renewal permit within a certain period of time, then you're allowed to continue acting under the expired permit until DHEC makes a decision on the renewal. The thing is DHEC has been sitting on these renewals for between 8 and 10 years, allowing these three generating plants to continue discharging at polluting levels that they wouldn't otherwise be allowed to under the laws as they exist today.
Our cases about making DHEC, we're asking for what we call a mandamus. You're asking the court to basically order DHEC to make a decision on these three permits. One way or another, either they need to deny them, or they need to issue them with these higher standards in place. But they've got to act on them. They can't just let them languish, which is what's been happening for the past 8 to 10 years. The reason I'm really excited about this particular case is that we’re working with Sierra Club. We're representing Sierra Club in the state court action. It's part of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. I think that that's, to me, particularly an exciting campaign because all of us recognize that climate change is something that we've got to all take action on now. We cannot wait.
I read your website to see some of the things ... the changes that you've personally made. I think we all need to take action and something that SCELP is excited about taking action on is, ultimately, what we want is these coal-fired plants to discontinue their use. We need to move away from fossil fuels and we need to move towards renewables. Your discussion with Allan Hancock was a great one on renewables and how we're moving to increase use of things like solar in South Carolina. But it's not until we say goodbye to these old, dirty coal plants that we're going to really be able to get there. I think it's, to me, inspiring to be working with Sierra Club on part of their Beyond Coal campaign, and trying to, at a minimum, get these plants to be discharging less and polluting less into our state waters. But ultimately, moving away from coal-fired plants is something that I think is very important for us to be doing in this state.
Yeah, 100%. I guess it's surprising just as a layperson that there's a lack of accountability on behalf of DHEC. Is the only insight or oversight and accountability coming from firms like yourself, basically, flagging it that you guys have been sitting on this for 10 years. That's the only way to tackle these issues?
Right. Yes. I think the short answer is yes. We did try to talk to DHEC and ask them ... try to nudge them along. These permits are expired. We'd really like you to take action. We did make our best efforts to move the needle with DHEC before filing lawsuit. I mean, that's the last resort. But at the end of the day, if no action is being taken by DHEC, the only remedy that we have is to go through the judicial system and seek relief.
Wow. Well, again, grateful for the Sierra Club and for SCELP to be able to do those things on behalf of, let's say, the people of South Carolina, because if they're running at above allowed pollution levels, everyone down river is affected, right?
Absolutely. I mean, that's the whole reason why these new effluent limitation guidelines were implemented in 2015 is to give more protection to people, to our waterways, and minimizing pollution.
Something we talked about with our conversation with Alan Hancock was that many of the communities downriver from these plants are disadvantaged communities, many who use the waterways even for fishing. I know even as a child growing up here, we were given limits on how many fish we could take from the river and it wasn't a fish conservation reason. It was because it was too dangerous to eat that much fish and that's pretty wild to think about.
I'm glad you raised that because it brings up an important point. South Carolina, historically, we've placed polluting industry whether it's a coal-fired plant or a steel mill or a chemical plant. All of these industries have historically been placed in communities that are low income communities, communities of color. They have historically borne the brunt of pollution in this state. Landfills, we fought a number of landfills in the state where they're really hoisted on communities that are disenfranchised, that don't have the ability to fight for themselves. It's beyond time to stop.
Yeah. Exactly. Shine a light on it and make some change. It seems to be something that goes throughout history. I know when I lived in Britain, I realized that there's a commonality with the big cities there that the working class neighborhoods were on the east end. I did a little Googling, why are working class communities on the east end of the city? You have London. You have Eastenders and Glasgow East end. Then the more affluent part of the city was the West End. It was because during the Industrial Revolution, when they built the factories, the smoke would generally blow over the east end and the more affluent people would settle to the west so they wouldn't experience that. Even the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution kicked off that sort of pattern, unfortunately.
Let's pivot a little bit and talk about residential development or just development in general. SCELP has filed a request for a contested case hearing with the administrative law court on behalf of the Sierra Club and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation. You're also joined by Charleston Waterkeeper, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, and challenging the state environmental agencies authorization of a 3,000 acre mixed use development in Charleston's West Ashley. That one stands to threaten the health and the livability of the community as it would allow the permanent destruction of over 200 acres of wetlands. Can you talk to us about how this development would impact wetlands and why it is important to make the effort to protect wetlands in South Carolina and across the world as well?
Sure. Wetlands are ... Wetlands serve a lot of functions and values. There's some obvious ones like they provide wildlife habitat. That's where a lot of amphibian species breed. They need that for their habitat. It's also the important functions of ... basically they're called sponges and they suck up water and they hold water. They provide what we think of as flood buffering or flood attenuation to be able to hold in and store water.
One of the things that they do when we've got a storm event, for example, is water will run off into the wetlands and they will hold and track that. Now, when you start filling in wetlands, then the water that normally would go to where the wetlands are, because they're in lower lying areas, once you build in those areas, the water still wants to go there, except a lot of times there's homes there that have been built on top of the wetlands. They'll fill in a wetland and build a home on it. It's exactly that phenomenon that has resulted in houses in the West Ashley area where this long ... we call it the Long Savannah Project.
There are houses in that West Ashley area that have experienced that exact fate. They've been built in these floodplains in wetland areas, and water still wants to go to these low lying areas except there's a house there and then they end up experiencing repeated flooding. There have been dozens of houses in the West Ashley area adjacent to where this Long Savannah Project is located that had been bought out now with taxpayer dollars because of the ... they've been flooded three, four, five times.
A lot of SCELP's work is focused on how do we site development. Where's a good place to site it? Where can we site it so that we know people are going to be safe and not put in harm's way in the future? We know that NOAA maps that have looked at predictions of sea level rise and how that's going to change our ecosystem or landscape. We know that we're going to see more inundation in these low lying areas over time. We also know that those lower areas are where the marsh is ultimately going to want to migrate. We need to leave some space for the impacts of sea level rise, essentially, that we're able to maintain habitat for the variety of species that form the basis of our food chain.
So a project like Long Savannah, it is on 3,000 acres. It's the entire project site. The development isn't on the whole site. But there are over 700 acres of wetlands on this property, and the developer's proposing to fill in approximately 140 acres of wetlands, and then excavate about 70 acres of wetlands on the project site. Those wetlands, roughly 210 acres of wetlands will be completely lost and destroyed. Either they're going to be converted to storm water detention areas, or they're going to have structures. They're going to be filled in and have structures built on them. You're going to have a complete loss of over 200 acres. That's a very large and significant number of wetland impacts. I would call it really atypical for the kinds of wetland permits that we see coming down.
I've been doing this for 18 years. You see a lot of different things over time. This one is a jarring amount of wetland impacts. It's particularly troublesome because it's in this West Ashley area of town that's subject to repeated flooding. We already know that. The City of Charleston engaged in a process with the Historic Charleston Foundation called Dutch Dialogues. Anyone in the Charleston area will have heard about the Dutch Dialogues. It was a pretty major undertaking to look at ways that we can live with water as the Dutch have done and taking some of the lessons that they've learned and basically, rethinking how we live with water. One of the things that they looked at was the West Ashley area. They specifically noted that these fill and build activities, when we fill in floodplains and wetland areas, and build on top of them, ... we're just putting people at risk. We need to stop doing that, because those are the areas where the water wants to go. We need to have more areas like that instead of less.
When we looked at the Dutch Dialogues' recommendations, when we looked at the history of flooding in ... specifically in West Ashley, it's happening in Charleston, it's really something that I'm seeing more in Georgetown, all around the state, we're seeing more flooding impacts. Really, what we want to see happen is that we want developments like Long Savannah to be done in a way where you're avoiding those really significant wetland destruction components of the project.
Yeah. I mean, there's the double-whammy of rising sea levels which Charleston is suffering from greatly, just because it's on the coast and that's not something we can reverse right away. And then the filling in of the wetlands. The whole state has been seeing flooding issues. I know the Midlands we got our share in October 2015 with that flood. I think sometimes people see it as just there's just a lot of water. There was flooding because we had four straight days of rain. But really, you've paved over things, you've developed things, you've removed the natural systems that would handle floods and inundation. It's mindboggling that development still wants to go in that direction. Are there any thoughts on that? Why do we keep trying to do this? Or is it firms like yourself that are going to have to stand up and be like, "Come on guys, it's 2020, why are we still doing this?"
I mean, this particular project is interesting because when they ... it's got a long history and it's been proposed for many years and on the table for quite a long time. When they first proposed the project, there were only a couple hundred acres of wetlands identified. The US Army Corps of Engineers is the agency that determines the extent of wetlands on a property. The developer had to go back in and get a new wetlands determination because they only are valid for five years.
When they went back in, they found these 700 acres of additional wetlands. When the project was initially conceived, the impacts were not going to be so substantial. But the project, in the face of new information that identified a lot more wetlands, didn't change that significantly and because they're still having quite a large amount of wetland impacts.
I can't speak for the developer. I've read a lot of their arguments, I guess, about why they want to do it and they've made arguments about the financial feasibility of doing the project with eliminating some of the wetland impacts. Of course, they say, "It's not feasible." That's an argument that we hear routinely. There's a plan developed and they have to do it this way, and they can't do it any other way. This is the only way that they can do it. I mean, we're going to go to court and we'll be arguing about whether they really can or not.
Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission is going to have a park on the property. I mean, it's a very large site. That's a component of it. I know that's one of the other arguments that we expect them to make that there's a benefit because there's going to be a public park. But I think we would respond that the loss of such a significant amount of wetland storage and wildlife habitat is not worth that risk.
Yeah. We've talked a little bit about other wetland habitats on this podcast. We spoke to Oli Moraes, who spoke about the carbon sequestration power of mangroves and those wetlands ecosystems around the world. We spoke a little bit about the East Coast wetlands with David Harper. Then we talked about the reintroduction of beavers to the UK to actually help with their recreation of wetlands, because they're experiencing flooding problems. If you look at it, the destruction of wetlands, fill and build, the long-term ramifications are just so much. I wish success. What's the next stage in this development in regards to SCELP?
Basically, we think of it as an appeal or a challenge to the DHEC, the state agency authorizations that allowed the fill in the first place. There's a set of procedures that happens. Next, we tell the court what facts we're going to present. What the legal basis is for the case. Then we'll go through what we call Discovery, where we ask for documents from DHEC, the permitting agency, and the developer. We ask them to provide us expert reports and any analyses, pro formas, things that they've done to justify the project. We'll want to take depositions from expert witnesses and witnesses that know about the project and the permitting process.
It's basically getting ready for a trial. At some point, the administrative law judge will schedule a hearing date and we'll go into Columbia and put up our case. It definitely won't be in 2020. But it'll probably be coming up in the next year or so. Just for those that are really familiar with the Charleston area, I think it might just be worth mentioning that these basins that we're talking about, and these are the projects on the Church Creek and the Rantowles Creek. They're within those basins and adjacent to those creeks and ultimately discharging out into the Stono River.
When we talk about and think about what those areas look like, we got some creek areas, some bottomland hardwood areas, we've got some photographs that we've taken up the site and it's really quite a lovely place and there's also standing water in some of these wetland areas. When you see it, it's really quite remarkable what the actual habitat looks like and thinking about that being lost is pretty alarming.
Yeah. I'd love to share photos, either that you have or that I can find of that area so that our listeners who aren't in that area can understand exactly what the wetlands of the Lowcountry look like, because they are very unique. I've never really seen anything like it. It's something that we certainly need to fight to preserve.
We're glad to get some of those. Maybe we can put it at the end of this.
Yeah, definitely. Yeah. Speaking about our wetlands, it's not just residential development that might be a threat to the wetlands down in the Lowcountry. We're also facing threats from tourism development because the coast of South Carolina is so loved by so many. From your website, but also I just listened to the most recent Public Concern podcast, which had previous Eco-Interviews guests Alan Hancock, Rebecca Haynes, and Queen Quet on it. SCELP is supporting the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association in fighting a proposed eco-resort on Bay Point Island. Can you tell us about Bay Point Island and what this fight is about, what this ecotourism development is proposing?
Sure. I think the Bay Point issue really overlaps in a lot of ways with the Long Savannah challenge, because a lot of our work is really aimed at keeping people and structures out of harm's way, that we want to not put people in dangerous locations. We know where some of those dangerous locations are. We should make wise land use decisions that don't put people, structures at risk and sacrifice wildlife habitats. That's certainly the case with Long Savannah and Bay Point. Bay Point is a little bit different, because Long Savannah, that project, there's a lot of land that can be developed without impacting wetlands because it's such a huge site.
Bay Point is a lot different. It's a barrier island. In South Carolina, we have a lot of barrier islands and they're called barrier islands because they're really a barrier or a buffer between the ocean and in the marsh estuarine system and the land behind it. They are our first defense when we've got storm events or major nor'easters and things like that. A lot of them, if you look at them, are very narrow. Some of them are a lot bigger. Bay Point is at the mouth of Port Royal Sound in Beaufort County. It's really amazing to see this piece of land in person.
I went down there about two weeks ago and circumnavigated the island. It's pretty small. It's about maybe 400 acres. It's a sandy landmass, basically. It's got some trees and some forested areas on it. But it's very susceptible to the forces of the inlets on either side of it, as well as the ocean, and the river on the backside. It's completely surrounded by water. It's inaccessible by vehicle. There's no bridge. The only way you can get out there is by boat. When you ride around the island, you see a lot of how dynamic it is.
The island's really in flux. It's eroding and a lot of places where you see trees and vegetation that are falling into the creek on the backside and trees falling, laying on the ocean ... on the beach, on the ocean front side. There is one house. It's out on the island and it's now pretty much inundated. It's completely inundated by water at high tide. It's starting to crumble and fall onto the ocean amidst all these trees. It's very erosional in some places. It's got a lot of loss of vegetation. It's clearly a really dynamic piece of shifting sand, really.
There's a developer called Six Senses. They're out of Thailand. They own a handful of luxury resorts around the world. They are proposing an eco ... they are calling it an eco-resort. But it's really a high-end luxury resort. It would be about 50 villas along with restaurants and shops and wellness centers and spas, pretty exclusive resort that you're ... I don't know about you. I probably wouldn't be going there at $1000 or so a night. It's a very exclusive high-end plan that they have for Bay Point.
The problems are that, one, this area has been used historically by the Gullah/Geechee people, like the fisherman that we're representing with the Gullah.Geechee Fishing Association. It's been used historically by that community and the Nation to fish, to harvest shellfish, to fish from the banks and the waters around Bay Point. There's a lot of cultural significance in that respect. They've been using it for many generations. Development, obviously, an eco-resort in this cultural area would really be a significant change to those uses.
The other big problem is, of course, they would need septic systems and a lot of infrastructure to support the development, the resort and in an area that's highly susceptible to impacts from rising sea level, from hurricanes, from storm events. What we see all around the coast of South Carolina are nearly every single beach in the state is erosional. A lot of people that live on the coast and many people in Columbia know that constantly communities are asking the state for contributions for re-nourishment, or federal funds for re-nourishing beaches, because our beaches are so largely erosional that you're needing to constantly maintain them by pumping sand on them. Bay Point is no exception and because of its size and its location in Port Royal Sound it is particularly susceptible.
When I think about siting decisions and land use decisions, this is exactly the place where you would not want to put any kind of permanent structures, where you know that you're going to be putting those structures at risk. That probably have a lifespan of maybe 10 years before you see them either inundated by sea level or just being destroyed by one of the many tropical storm or hurricane events that we are seeing on pretty much an annual basis. In South Carolina in 2020, it's just barely the start [of hurricane season] and we've already even had our first hurricane. It's really a place that needs to be protected, that needs to have those historic and cultural uses maintained.
Obviously, you could do ecotourism out there without having structures by taking people by boat for day trips to be able to see and enjoy the land. Just adjacent to this, to Bay Point is another island called St. Philips Island. It's a lot larger. I think it's at least 800 acres. It's a lot larger than Bay Point. It's very forested. It was owned by Ted Turner. He sold it at a very ... what we call a bargain price, ultimately, to DNR. It's now in state hands, which is, I think, where it really makes the most sense to be because it's protected. People can still go out there. They can walk and recreate on the beach. All of the beaches in South Carolina that are below mean high water are called public trust property, which means you and I have the right to walk on that public trust property. It's ours. The state's holding it and managing it for us.
I think it's one of the wonderful things about being a South Carolinian. We have these beautiful beaches in our state. Let's keep them open and not altered. And lest I forget, one of the other important things about Bay Point is Audubon Society has designated the island, in its entirety, as an Important Bird Area. It's part of the Atlantic Flyway. When migratory shorebirds are moving up our coast, they need places where they can stop, they can rest, and they can feed, and build up fat stores during their winter migration. They aren't able to do that when there's a lot of human activity. Because human activity, a lot of times, we bring our dogs. There are raccoons and possums and things like that, that come with human development because we've got food, and our trash, and all of those things.
When we inhabit areas, when we have structures and introduce more consistent day-to-day regular human activity on our beaches that is ... I know it may not seem like it at first blush, but it's very disruptive to birds, to shorebirds that are especially overwintering and trying to build up those fat stores. Bay Point is really significant because it's one of those places. We have fewer and fewer of them and they become even more ... the ones that we have that are uninhabited that where we can leave wildlife alone and leave it relatively undisturbed. We need to make sure we got those places if we're going to be able to help these shorebird species survive. It's also really important from that respect. Even a limited amount of development, you're still going to have people that are going to be interacting with those birds and wildlife on a daily basis.
Yeah. I learned something super interesting from the Public Concern podcast. First of all, Queen Quet said that the Gullah/Geechee don't even consider Bay Point an island, so they kind of laugh when they hear them calling it Bay Point Island because to them it's just a spit out in the ocean. It's not an island. They said looking into the other properties owned by Six Senses, their average cost per night, 2 to $3,000. Really, who is this aimed at? It's not really aimed at the local population, it excludes me as well, and like they said the development that would have to go into this eco-resort. They had also mentioned that they think it's being dubbed eco-resort to get around certain zoning regulations. Can you talk about that at all?
Right. The zoning ordinances in Beaufort County wouldn't allow development unless it meets the ecotourism definition. Initially, the county said, it doesn't conclude that it did not meet that definition. Then the developer expended a great amount of money on retaining what I would call a greenwash group to advocate for it and call it say "Yes, it is actually ecotourism." But if you look at the facilities that are associated with it, it's not aimed at being what you would think of as designed to engage with nature. It is in a very natural place, but it's got wellness centers, and spas, and restaurants, and villas.
It's not really, from our perspective, they're trying to shoehorn something in that doesn't really fit. It's a luxury resort. We don't believe it's ecotourism in any real sense of that word other than some greenwashed, created definition. It's been frustrating to see how that's all played out, and so the county reversed its position. Now, the developer meets the zoning ordinance. They just need to get what's called a special use permit to allow the project to go forward. We are, obviously, advocating against the issuance of this special use permit.
Part of our arguments are going to be that this doesn't truly qualify as ecotourism. Meaning there can be a lot of ways that you do ecotourism that have a very ... that has such a light touch on a property and this isn't one of them because they're ... if you look at the island, they're using all of the only area that you could develop on, I mean, there are wetlands onsite. You can't really develop on those. I would agree with Queen Quet. I think of it more as a ... it's a big old sandbar. Not really an island. It's a big sandy landmass. It's constantly shifting. I think that's interesting to hear you repeat what she said about that, that they don't really think of it as an island, because that makes sense. It's not like Hilton Head Island, or Sullivan's Island, or something like that. It's a very narrow, very fragile system.
It does beg the question, why are developments even entertained, I guess, would be the right question. That leads us into my next question that in a broader sense, generally, city, county and state planners see development as net positive. They're making money off it. They get, for building residential neighborhoods, I imagine the positive is that you get more tax revenues. If it's a tourism development, you're getting tourism money. But I mean, it really seems like we need a different approach to development if we want to protect, sustain, and hopefully heal our environment. Resorts that were built 50 years ago, you can make the argument that we just didn't know the ramifications environmentally and humans are part of the environment. It has negative effects on us as well. Now, in 2020, I think we should be making the argument that we should know better. As you've worked in this and a lot of the work you're doing is development, do you have suggestions or how would you like to see future development going forward?
Well, I mean, I think one way we could begin to address it is that really the cost of development doesn't really reflect the public cost of that development. What I mean by that is, sure, there are tax revenues and that's often the driver. I think you're exactly right. They get approved very often because local governments do see significant tax revenue come in. The problem is, ultimately, the taxpayers have to pay when developments are put in an unsafe risky, dangerous location. I mean, one example, I will refer back to is in West Ashley where we've had to have buyouts of properties that have been repeatedly flooding. I mean, that money has to come from somewhere.
With respect to Bay Point, what's going to happen when those houses are washed into the ocean and strewn throughout Port Royal Sound's pristine waters? Who's on the hook for cleaning that up? It's not the developer. It's us, the taxpayers. If the true cost of development were reflected in what the developer pays, what people that actually use those facilities pay. I mean, that would be one way. But that's not happening right now.
The burden ends up on the taxpayers when we've got situations that either become hazardous, because these properties become inundated. They start falling into the ocean. There's all marine debris. There's all kinds of pollution. It can be dangerous for people that are recreating in the water when we've got debris strewn in our creeks and waterways. We don't, right now, have a way. We aren't adequately accounting for those costs. I think that if we really did, then maybe we wouldn't see these areas being developed. But we know that people are willing to pay very large amounts of money to be in very beautiful places. We have a lot of really beautiful places. But the cost benefit analysis really hasn't been done to show and the true costs of those developments haven't really been incorporated into the equation.
Yeah. I wonder what modeling could be done to include those costs. It feels a lot of things we do are very shortsighted, not just in development. But just a lot of our human actions right now, our purchases, our day-to-day is what's right in front of our face and without consideration of what happens after use or what happens before it. I don't know how we expand our mind on that.
Yeah. Well, I mean, I think that there has been ... I haven't done any of this work. But I've read about it. There has been a good bit of research on quantifying the value of wetlands of an acre of wetlands. You can put a dollar value on that. You can actually quantify what its value is. You take that into account as part of the cost benefit analysis into the overall equation of a development project, for example. There are some ways that you can quantify those things.
We aren't doing it now. We're not taking into account now when we're making these development decisions. I think there's a lot of public sentiment that's building around this idea that we need to think about protecting the people that are already living in communities before we make decisions about siting more development in areas that are going to be either already flood prone, or will have impacts on existing communities.
One of your comments reminded me about the Green Diamond project. I don't know if you remember hearing about it. But it was a proposed development in Richland County in a floodplain. That project had been proposed for really, I think almost decades because I remember hearing about it when I was in law school in the late '90s. That project ultimately was thwarted. But I saw pictures of that Green Diamond site after the 2015 floods. There was a lot of water. I mean, it was filled with water. It was, to me, just a very clear evidence that if we had actually ... if that development had gone in there, it would be entirely underwater. We would have had a whole lot more damage than what Columbia and Richland County experienced to begin with.
We can see some of those things. Now, we should use that to inform and guide the decisions on how we grow and how we develop and make sure that we're doing it in a way that makes sense, that's going to not put people in harm's way, that's going to protect some of these natural flood buffering functions. It's going to allow wildlife to coexist with human habitation.
Yeah. That's great. What's coming down the docket for SCELP? Anything interesting that you want to tell us about?
Well, we're working on quite a few issues. Up in the Upstate, in Greenville, Michael Corley is spending quite a good bit of time trying to get some good laws established on protecting rural landscapes. Greenville County, the rural parts of Greenville County are under a pretty tremendous threat of development in some of these rural landscapes that have really agricultural uses and have been larger properties that have got a lot of valuable qualities. We've seen a number of projects that are really, what I would think of, very much sprawl. When you think of a sprawl project that comes into a very rural area and dramatically alters the landscape.
Wanting to keep some rural landscapes protected, that's a big issue that we're grappling with in the Upstate. We've got a lot of work that is focused specifically on the beachfront. Certainly goes to siting type issues like where and how you build on the beach. We're working down on Folly to try and prevent people from building on a beach that was created entirely with re-nourished sand. Folly is one of our very erosional beaches. It's regularly re-nourished. It's a result of the jetties. There's a lot of federal funds that pay for that re-nourishment. There was a re-nourishment last year. Before that re-nourishment, some of these areas were underwater completely, under the ocean. Then the re-nourishment was brought in. Now, at least one house has been built. We're trying to prevent other houses from being built. But that's another along with similar lines of what we've been talking about, trying to prevent houses from being built in areas that we know are going to be inundated in the very near term, and on Folly, really near term because that beach loses sands so rapidly.
We're also working on trying to prevent hard erosion control structures on our beaches, things like groins and seawalls have been a big part of our work, because those structures interfere with the public use of the beach. They also interfere with sea turtle nesting. We have a good bit of work that's around those issues. We were trying to be available to address needs that come up for South Carolinians in trying to protect their communities and wildlife habitat. We're trying to just keep our finger on the pulse. It's a lot. There's a lot going on even in the midst of COVID, we had this Long Savannah permit be issued and a couple others that we've been watching real closely.
We've also been working for about a decade now to protect Captain Sams Spit on Kiawah Island from proposed 50-home development. It's a situation similar to Bay Point, very dynamic piece of land that's been subject to a lot of changes. Both Bay Point and Captain Sams have some similarities because they're in what's called with COBRA zone. It's a Coastal Barrier Resource Act. Sorry. I'm so used to saying the acronym. The words take a little bit to come out. But it's designed ... That law is set up so that you can't get federal funding for any development projects on barrier islands. Bay Point's one of them, Captain Sams one of them. What it means is that you don't get federal flood insurance. It's another flag. But it's a risky place to build. We've been working on that as well. That case is up in the Supreme Court right now. We're keeping busy.
Yeah. Sounds like it. I was going to ask you about that with the homes that they're trying to build on the re-nourished sand. How do they get insurance for homes built that way?
Well, so Folly is not in the COBRA zone. That particular area, they would qualify for FEMA for federal flood insurance.
I mean, it's a taxpayer subsidy. It's a pretty big problem.
Yeah. I mean, there are, what's the right word, critical people when things flood, let's say, during Katrina and the horrible flooding in New Orleans, and then you get the flooding on the coast of Massachusetts and some people will be like, "Well, why would you live there if it's going to flood?" But if they keep building, I think, that's another layperson's assumption if something is built somewhere, then it's safe. That's not necessarily the case as you've highlighted with some of these new developments, building on shaky land.
Just building on shifting sands. I remember growing up as a kid, going to Sunday school and learning that you aren't supposed to ... “The wise man builds his house on a solid rock, and the foolish man builds his house on a shifting sand” as a really interesting parable and one that, obviously would make sense to everybody except for right now it doesn't really make sense that maybe you shouldn't build on shifting sands. I think just on this idea of federal flood insurance and subsidies and circling back to at-risk properties. We know when sea level rises that our communities of color and low income communities are the ones that are most depressed. We need absolutely to spend federal dollars and taxpayer dollars to help those communities, because they're going to need our help. That kind of money, I don't think needs to go to people that are able to build multimillion dollar houses on the beaches. I think we need some major restructuring when it comes to how we're spending our FEMA funds.
Yeah, definitely. You hear that as well. Why would the Obamas buy a house on Martha's Vineyard if there's climate change and all that rubbish. But, yeah, the people who have those multimillion dollar houses can pack up and go. But for the rest of us, it's not as simple, especially if it's an old family property that you're living on. There needs to be some reprieve for people who need help. How can people follow SCELP?
They can follow us on our website, which is just scelp.org. They can follow us on our Facebook account South Carolina Environmental Law Project. They can also follow us on Twitter and @SCELP, and on Instagram also. But I'm not sure what our handle is off the top of my head.
I think it's SCELP. S-C-E-L-P. That's the South Carolina thunderstorm is rolling in hard right now. I'm not sure if the thunder is coming through. But we're about to get washed away.
Not that I'm sending it your way, because it was here a couple hours ago. We've got clear blue skies. But it must be moving up towards the Midlands.
That's it. It's coming through. We had something similar with the tropical storm Isaias that came through, what was that, two days ago that came through and we got the bands as well. Hopefully, you guys weren't too badly affected by it. Were you guys okay in Georgetown?
We had a bunch of rain, but really very little wind. We stayed pretty safe.
That's good. I'm sure the wetlands helped absorb that water.
Well, Amy, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us. I look forward to sharing our conversation with our audience. SCELP is doing ... sounds like fantastic things. I enjoy following what you're doing. You guys are being that voice for those who are not able to speak up, like you said, the wilderness, the trees, the animals, also disenfranchised communities that need help to defend the natural landscapes and environment that they thrive on. Without that, we're all in trouble. I appreciate that.
Yeah. Thanks so much for having me, Fiona. I enjoyed it.
All right. Thank you, Amy. Have a wonderful rest of the day and have a wonderful vacation as well.
All right. Thanks a lot.