FEATURE ‌ Greenies vs. Meanies 

Amateur enviro-lobbyists swim with sharks

click to enlarge Barrier Island Ecotours' Holly Blair is putting her mouth where her wallet is by lobbying state legislators to protect what's left of South Carolina's coast
  • Barrier Island Ecotours' Holly Blair is putting her mouth where her wallet is by lobbying state legislators to protect what's left of South Carolina's coast

Two against 13 are not good odds, especially if you're pitting two staff members from a nonprofit like the Coastal Conservation League against more than a dozen professional lobbyists from the outdoor advertising industry.

All 15 were wrangling to influence state lawmakers' votes last week on a bill that could effectively strip a local government's ability to regulate billboards — a battle municipalities lost when the state House and Senate overrode a veto last year by Gov. Sanford.

It was during this year's legislative battle that the League's Christie McGregor and Gretta Kruesi decided they needed a greater presence at the Statehouse. The league had a problem, though; they did not have the money to hire anyone else.

Instead of hiring lobbyists they could not pay, the League decided to recruit lobbyists from among their own ranks on a volunteer basis. Since Jan. 24, members have been providing support for the League's Conserving Communities Naturally agenda laid down by 22 organizations including the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and the Lowcountry Open Land Trust. Every Tuesday, conservationists from Hilton Head to Myrtle Beach have been gathering for caffeine and a quick briefing at the Immaculate Consumption coffee house in Columbia before venturing into shark-infested Statehouse waters with the pros.

"It was unlike any experience I ever had," says Holly Blair, who lobbied legislators for her first time on Feb. 28. Blair took time off from her job as an environmental educator at Isle of Palms-based Barrier Island Ecotours to ask representatives to pass a bill of regulatory compromises hammered out by local developers and nature lovers over bridge construction to marsh islands — one of the last refuges of wildlife habitat on South Carolina's heavily developed coastline.

Blair says she felt their efforts had an impact because it seemed that many of the representatives were not aware of the value these small islands were to surrounding ecosystems and tourism.

Veteran conservation lobbyist John Brubaker was not so optimistic.

When asked if he thought the Lobby Team was effective, Brubaker says, "No, but it's more effective than if it had not happened." Despite his pessimism (which some would call realism), Brubaker fights on.

After 30 years as a research assistant in the Medical University of South Carolina's Pharmacology department, Brubaker retired and moved out to the country to become a full-time environmental advocate.

He also started talking to the state's elected representatives, giving presentations on ecological issues to House and Senate Committees, and also started attending the Conservation League's annual public lobby day.

When the League started their weekly volunteer Lobby Team, Brubaker jumped at that, too.

"It became apparent to the environmental community in South Carolina that legislators didn't have an opportunity to hear from environmentalists while they passed legislation," Brubaker says. "Environmentalists had been sending letters and petitions and making phone calls, but there was not a real opportunity to talk to lawmakers face-to-face like the professional lobbyists."

As an ecologist and lover of the rural character of Awendaw, where he now lives, Brubaker's main motivation is stopping passage of Takings Bill H. 4502.

Riding the wave of public backlash against the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that governments could seize private property through eminent domain for economic development unless otherwise prohibited by state law, state Rep. Tracy Edge (R-Horry County), introduced a bill to protect property owners from "regulatory takings" through rezoning.

Edge — the vice president of Myrtle Beach real estate giant Burroughs and Chapin Company, which owns the Pavilion Amusement Park, Myrtle Waves Water Park, golf resorts, a mountain resort, and residential and commercial real estate, in addition to their 850 billboard sign faces — did not return calls for comment on the matter.

The bill, which is cosponsored by Charleston Republican Reps. John Graham Altman III and Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, would not allow a government to seize land to be handed over to another private interest except under certain circumstances, such as a blighted neighborhood, which the league says it has no problem with.

The part of the bill it disagrees with is the part that would force local governments to compensate landowners for loss in property value due to rezoning and other new land use regulations.

For example, if someone wanted to build 500 houses in an area that was rezoned for one house every 25 acres, or sell the family land to a developer who wants to build hundreds of homes, the town or county government would have to compensate them for the loss in economic value.

The league, the South Carolina Association of Counties, and other bill opponents like S.C. Rep. Ben Hagood (R-Chas.) have claimed this would put such an economic burden on local governments that they would not be able to zone property and manage growth.

Whichever way the General Assembly votes on these bills, the Lobby Team's work is far from done. Also on its agenda is getting the state to buy timberlands as they are sold off by paper companies, securing full funding for the Conservation Bank, wetland protection, allowing counties to regulate animal farms, and fighting sprawl by getting governments to push new development to be built around existing infrastructure. If you'd like more info on the CCL's Lobby Team, go to www.scccl.org, or for the South Carolina Landowners Association's perspective, go to www.saveourlandrights.com.


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