The conversion of more than 400 acres of Jasper County wetlands into a salt-marsh mitigation bank now depends on a federal court ruling after developers and a nonprofit law firm made their final arguments in an appeal last month.
The Clydesdale Club Mitigation Bank, approved in 2013, would involve removing several earthen dikes from private property about a mile and a half from U.S. 17, allowing water from the Back River to flow freely into a 700-acre tract of wetlands.
The plan would create about 487 acres of salt marsh, which land owner South Coast Mitigation Group, LLC plans to sell as credits to other developers whose projects damage area waters and wetlands.
While a 2013 federal lawsuit to block the mitigation bank was dismissed in July, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League appealed the decision, represented by the nonprofit South Carolina Environmental Law Project.
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The group argues the project will cause irrevocable harm to rare freshwater marsh, more of which will also be destroyed by the planned deepening of the Savannah Harbor, attorney Chris DeScherer said.
"It's sort of a bad trade," DeScherer said of the conversion to salt marsh.
South Coast disagrees, citing tests that show the water inside the bank site is already saltier than the Back River, according to its response to the appeal.
The Clydesdale Club site is already regularly flooded with water from the Savannah River, court records show.
South Coast also has the legal authority to permanently remove the man-made structures separating the wetlands from the river, regardless of the creation of the mitigation bank, according to Stan Barnett, the company's attorney.
"People concerned about the environment should not be concerned about this," Barnett, of Mount Pleasant, said. "These people (in the conservation league) want to strangle our ability as a state to do public projects by taking away mitigation banks."
The suit's defendants -- South Coast, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Charleston District, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- filed their final responses by Jan. 21 and now await a decision.
Reached Friday, corps and EPA attorney Robert Lundman declined to comment.
At the corps' request, South Coast will not create the bank until the lawsuit is resolved, Barnett said.
Meanwhile, the company is working to obtain permits to expand the mitigation bank on a separate 865-acre tract called Murray Hill located next to the Clydesdale site.
DeScherer said the firm has submitted written objections to the Murray Hill project, which was proposed in February 2014, but cannot challenge it further.
"Once the corps makes a decision, we will evaluate our options," DeScherer said.
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.
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