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Environment: Appeals Court says church must preserve wetland

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Pawleys Island Community Church agreed to protect a small freshwater wetland in 2001, and that’s what it needs to do in the future, according to a ruling by state Court of Appeals. “As we interpret the agreement, that wetland will be permanently protected,” said Jessie White, staff attorney with the S.C. Environmental Law Project.

The wetland is less than two-tenths of an acre, but to Dan and Mary Abel, who once lived next to the church, the issue was bigger than that. They opposed a request from the church for a state permit to fill the wetland as part of the construction of a 20,000-square-foot worship center. They went to Jimmy Chandler, founder of the environmental law project. “He said there’s nothing you can do to stop this,” Dan Abel recalled, but Chandler added, “if you object, it will slow them down.”

Rather than delay the project or fill the wetlands, the Abels and the church reached an agreement. Half the wetland would be filled. The other half would be preserved. “Neither party was happy,” Abel said.

In 2012, the church applied for a permit to fill the rest of the wetland as part of a project to build a storage building, additional parking and a stormwater retention pond. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control questioned the agreement between the Abels and the church, but issued the permit.

The Abels appealed to the Administrative Law Court. Judge Shirley Robinson ruled the agreement was valid, but said it only applied to the worship center, not to future projects.

“Imagine if you signed a contract with somebody and then they say, “It’s a new day, that doesn’t apply anymore,’ ” Abel said. He and his wife appealed.

Chief Judge James Lockemy, writing for a three-judge appellate panel, said Robinson “improperly rewrote the unambiguous language in the consent order” to limit the time the wetland would be preserved. “The clause’s plain language protects the wetlands going forward.”

Dan Stacy, who represented the church, said this week he has not discussed the ruling with church leaders. The Rev. Don Williams, the senior pastor, said Thursday the church was disappointed by the decision and would explore its options..

“We’re super excited because it always seemed like a very straightforward case to us,” White said. It doesn’t prevent the church from building, but it requires that any work account for the wetland preservation, she said.

“Even in their deposition, they didn’t have a full plan in place,” she added.

In striking down Robinson’s ruling, the Appeals Court noted the 2001 agreement requires the church to maintain a buffer along the wetland. “It strains the imagination to construe this clause only to apply to the construction project,” Lockemy wrote.

Update: This story has been updated from the print version to include a comment from the Rev. Don Williams.

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