South Carolina property owners currently have the right to block land development near their home by issuing what’s known as an “automatic stay,” which halts construction until a judge can hear the dispute.
Under a bill which passed a state House subcommittee on Thursday, developers could resume construction after 30 days if a judge does not rule before then. The Senate approved a different version of the bill earlier this year with a 90-day limit. The measure has been a top priority for legislative Republicans who argue stays are abused by conservation groups to block permits as soon as they are approved by state regulators.
State Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Summerville, said he thinks a 30-day window is enough time for a citizen or conservation group to hire a lawyer and investigate any questions about the environmental impact of a construction project. “This bill does not take away any arrows from the quiver of a private citizen,” he said during Thursday’s hearing. “It does enact a time limit.”
Conservation groups argue the stay is a way to pump the brakes on projects which could have serious impacts on South Carolina communities. Coastal Conservation League attorney Natalie Olson said the bill would give property owners a month to demonstrate why construction should not happen, instead of current legal precedent which requires developers or businesses to demonstrate why it should.
“That is an incredibly high burden… you are asking citizens to reach without an opportunity for discovery, without all the information available,” she told lawmakers.
The subcommittee voted to advance the measure to the full House Judiciary Committee, with the recommendation that the committee scale back the Senate’s 90-day limit. Senators agreed to the longer limit as a way to end a block by Democrats. The Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the bill at its meeting next week.
Republicans were not united on the bill. State Rep. Russell Fry, R-Surfside Beach, said he prefers the change, but would like to see the Senate compromise so the bill will pass both chambers.
But State Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, said he opposes the bill with any time limit. “Let’s allow the citizens to take a breath,” he said. “Allow the entity to take a breath, get together as a community and figure it out.”
Gov. Henry McMaster came out in support of the bill last week after it passed in the Senate.