South Carolina court ruling will protect coastal wetlands

The South Carolina Supreme Court dealt a smashing blow Monday to developers who have tried for years to overturn state rules that safeguard coastal freshwater wetlands from unchecked development.

The decision, much anticipated by environmentalists and developers, overturns a 2008 lower-court verdict that declared invalid state rules protecting freshwater wetlands along the coast.

If the Supreme Court had upheld the lower court decision, potentially hundreds of thousands of acres of freshwater wetlands would have been open for development without state oversight.

Conservationists cheered Monday's decision, saying it's an important victory for the plants, wildlife and wetlands that define South Carolina's Lowcountry.

"This has been a cloud hanging over coastal wetlands and coastal resources in general for nearly 10 years now," Pawleys Island lawyer Jimmy Chandler said.

"We finally put this argument to rest."

Chandler said the Supreme Court decision reinforces protections for all freshwater wetlands on the coast, but it is particularly significant for isolated depressions.

Isolated wetlands have been largely without federal protection in South Carolina since a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling curtailed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' authority. The ruling left state regulators with the only authority to limit or stop development in the soggy depressions — but that authority has been under attack.

Since 2001, developers from Beaufort to Myrtle Beach have raised questions about the state's coastal law and South Carolina's authority. But the case decided Monday is the only one to reach the S.C. Supreme Court.