Last week’s County Council meeting opened with an invocation: “Fill us with your grace as we make decisions that will affect the citizens, businesses, environment, and the future of Georgetown County. Put within us a revitalized energy of progress as we move forward in 2023. Continue to remind us that all we do as stewards over the land is . . . in the service of humanity and progress in Georgetown County.”
These opening remarks foreshadowed a stark contrast between rhetoric and actions.
Last year, planning department staff painstakingly crafted a Natural Resources Element (“NRE”) that set important, meaningful, attainable goals to enhance and protect the invaluable, irreplaceable natural resources that make Georgetown County unique. Multiple drafts were refined based on months of extensive input from community members and local organizations, and staff went above and beyond to ensure that the process was transparent and inclusive. After many updates, workshops, meetings, and public hearings, the Planning Commission unanimously approved a plan reflective of the community’s priorities and vision for the future.
Inexplicably, the NRE that was presented to County Council was almost unrecognizable, a mere shell of its former version, evidently gutted by County Administrator Angela Christian behind closed doors. Thankfully, the goal of drafting a wetland protection ordinance—which is needed now more than ever to mitigate increasing flooding events—remained. Yet elimination of nearly every other aspirational goal— without any public involvement or accountability—significantly and summarily weakened the NRE in defiance of the public’s express desire to prioritize and protect our water quality, wildlife habitats, beaches, rivers, and other natural systems.
County Council was complicit in stripping away months of planning staff work and public input. Without any substantive discussion, each and every member voted to approve the amended version.
This is not how local government should work.
Aside from the fact that the NRE was watered down and stripped of some of its most important goals and strategies, the vote was truly a slap in the face to every individual who gave of their time and knowledge to develop it. Months of outreach and input were trashed with the stoke of a pen.
The state legislature intended for local comprehensive planning to be a collaborative effort between local decision-makers and the community, and it unmistakably charged the Planning Commission with this task – not County Administration.
Expense was cited as the reason for most of the changes, yet County Administration nixed one revenue-generating strategy and failed to consider a multitude of state and federal grant opportunities, not to mention creative solutions like economic incentives and partnerships with organizations who have the expertise and means to help.
Comprehensive planning is meant to be visionary, outlining goals and identifying strategies to explore over the next decade. But aside from the wetlands ordinance goal, the NRE approved last Tuesday fails to set aspirational goals for natural systems that are a priority for residents, and indeed necessary for our own health and quality of life. What happened to the “revitalized energy of progress” and “steward[ship] over the land”? Actions speak louder than words – and the County’s recent actions have sent a clear message: we will ignore public input, we will not set meaningful goals to protect our natural resources, and we will not follow the law.
South Carolina Environmental Law Project
(Letter to the Editor published in the February 23, 2023 edition of the Coastal Observer.)