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Wetlands getting new protections, could see increased buffers from development

By Ruben Lowman

Wetlands throughout the local area will soon be getting new protections that could see them receive larger buffers from development, which is rapidly encroaching on the vital ecosystems throughout the county. 

County officials instructed the organization Horry County Rising, an area flood-advocacy group, to draw up a proposal for wetlands protections and present to county staff. Last Tuesday, April 12, the group’s founder, April O’Leary, presented the initial proposal to Horry County’s Infrastructure and Regulation Committee at their monthly meeting. 

“We’re either going to be forced to look at these things and implement them, and it’s going to be a top-down approach where the federal government is going to require us to manage these lands very differently,” said O’Leary. “Or we can set up a framework.”

There were several key takeaways from her proposal before the committee, which includes local county councilmembers Mark Causey, Danny Hardee and Bill Howard. The proposal by the group showed that there has been a 20 percent reduction in the overall amount of forested wetlands in the county over the past 25 years, coinciding with a 59 percent increase in land developed over the same timeframe. 

“We don’t have a lot of land where this water can go,” O’Leary said. “So it’s really critical that we protect our natural flood storage, like isolated wetlands and jurisdictional wetlands, because they’re providing a significant flood reduction benefit for us.”

The land area for the county is currently around 38 percent wetlands, with the majority of them being freshwater. Wetlands, including marshes and swamps, are areas that are either covered by water or saturated with water. They are vital to local ecosystems, as they help to protect water quality, provide habitat for local flora and fauna, and greatly decrease the risks and impacts of flooding. 

Little River and Longs have both been significantly affected by flooding during both minor and major storms in recent years. With Highways 57, 90 and 905 receiving the heaviest degree of development over that timeframe, residents say it has in turn contributed to flooding issues. Little River resident James Gause, who lives and owns a business along Highway 57, stated at a recent County Planning Commission meeting that the amount of stormwater runoff the area receives is already overwhelming and contributes to large-scale issues with flooding for its residents. 

“I don’t need a bathtub,” Gause said. “I can go outside and stand in my yard if I need to.”

The highway has become part of a growing area along the Highway 90 corridor in Little River and Longs that has seen increased development over the past decade. Residents of the area have met several times with county officials about the worsening impact that flooding is causing for them and their properties. Horry County Council has even signed resolutions limiting development along the corridor until the infrastructure is able to keep pace with the local population.

As the problem worsens for local residents, county council has formed committees and subcommittees to address the issue. The Highway 90 Task Force, which O’Leary is a member of, is specifically set in place to tackle the growing concerns around further developments on the highway. County officials recognize there is an issue and have set out to address it. 

“We all understand the wetlands in this county,” said councilman Bill Howard. “We know they’re protected, the developers know they’re protected. We want to continue to protect them.”

O’Leary brought the wetlands ordinance before council because research by Horry County Rising found that there are no rules placing restrictions on a minimum distance between new developments and wetlands throughout the county. Buffers between new homes and wetlands can provide a protective barrier for them, which O’Leary’s proposal wants to see become a 50-foot minimum buffer for all new homes built near wetlands.

“The further you are away from those types of wetlands, the less risk you face from flooding,” O’Leary said.

Wetlands are natural protection against storms and, in particular, stormwater that accumulates quickly after major storms. Wetlands absorb a significant amount of stormwater and they help to improve water quality by removing pollutants from nearby rivers and streams that flow into and through them. 

Property values of neighboring homes has been shown to increase because of wetlands, as well, as O’Leary’s proposal lays out that the value of a home increases by $436 when the distance from a wetland is increased by 1,000 feet. 

The infrastructure committee will now send the proposed wetlands ordinance to a workshop next month, where county officials will iron out the details before proceeding. 

About Polly Lowman