South Carolina

Developers funding research that could justify development near Myrtle Beach, critics say

The town of Nichols, S.C. was flooded as rainwater from Hurricane Florence flowed downstream in the Lumber and Little Pee Dee rivers. The town was also flooded in 2015 after Hurricane Matthew. 9/21/18
The town of Nichols, S.C. was flooded as rainwater from Hurricane Florence flowed downstream in the Lumber and Little Pee Dee rivers. The town was also flooded in 2015 after Hurricane Matthew. 9/21/18

Business interests are pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into a new research institute at Coastal Carolina University to counteract rising criticism of new development along the state’s flood-prone coast.

The Institute for Responsible Development has commitments from nearly three dozen of the Myrtle Beach area’s top developers, hotel owners, construction companies and engineers, according to documents obtained by The State.

Some of those funding the project have been involved in bitter fights with conservationists and local residents over new road construction and housing developments in soggy, wildlife rich communities in the Myrtle Beach area.

Critics question whether the institute’s research will be skewed toward development in risky places, but institute supporters and a top official at Coastal said the university’s research will be fair and unbiased. The institute will examine questions in dispute between developers and others, officials said.

All told, businesses have agreed to spend $405,500 to operate the institute over the next three years, according to a document provided to institute supporters by an official at Coastal Carolina. Institute supporters are also seeking to raise $2.5 million for an endowment to fund the institute over the long run.

According to a solicitation document from Coastal’s Education Foundation, the Institute for Responsible Development will conduct research and provide science-based information about the “opportunities for responsible growth’’ along the northern coast. The institute, to be housed in Coastal Carolina’s Craig Wall business school, would begin operation in 2020, the university says.

Plans for the institute were not widely known in South Carolina, but the university announced the research effort late Friday afternoon, hours after The State and The Sun News posted a story about the institute on their websites. Coastal Carolina said it will change the name to the Institute for Principled Development.

Those with the biggest financial commitments include Waccamaw Land and Timber Co., which owns land where a massive housing development will be built along S.C. 90, and the Burroughs and Chapin Co., one of the Myrtle Beach area’s biggest landowners and developers, documents obtained by The State show. Each has agreed to give $30,000 to the effort during the next three years, according to a document sent to institute supporters.

Others committing financial support include A.O. Hardee and Son, a construction company from Little River ($7,500); Clay and Matthew Brittain, whose family runs a resort company ($30,000); DDC Engineers, one of the most prominent consulting companies for developers in Myrtle Beach ($30,000); and A&I Fire and Water Restoration, a company that serves people with flood and fire damaged homes ($10,000), according to the document sent to institute backers.

Efforts to reach A.O. Hardee, the Brittains and Burroughs and Chapin were unsuccessful. A&I’s Danny Isaac said his company is helping fund the institute as a way of supporting Coastal Carolina University.

Keith Hinson, who owns the Waccamaw Land and Timber real estate company, said the research institute will give developers a way to offset unfair complaints by environmentalists, including the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, the state’s most influential conservation organization during the past 30 years. DDC’s Mike Wooten offered similar thoughts.

“The college is involved with us to have a voice about responsible growth and development, so we just don’t hear from the Coastal Conservation Leagues of the world that want to kill all development and growth,’’ Hinson said. “We can hear the other side, what the facts (are).’’

Environmentalists said developers near Myrtle Beach want the research institute to support development because residents are finally questioning new construction projects as Horry County grows. Myrtle Beach has long been a national tourist destination, but increasing numbers of year-round residents are worried about flooding, conservationists say.

“The tide is finally turning a little in Horry County,’’ said Dana Beach, who founded the Coastal Conservation League in 1989. “Developers have run Horry County for 50 years.’’

Disagreements over development in the Myrtle Beach area are occurring as the earth’s climate changes, sea levels rise and more intense storms swamp the United States. The effects of climate change have become such a concern that Gov. Henry McMaster formed a flood commission — which met Friday in Conway — to examine how to deal with rising water.

Hurricanes in the past four years have drenched coastal South Carolina, driving many people from their homes as floodwaters rose into living rooms. Much of the flooding has occurred along rivers in the Conway, Longs and Nichols areas west of Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach.

Details of how the Coastal Carolina institute would operate remain to be worked out. The institute will be run by an executive director, who has yet to be hired, and a board would provide input on institute research decisions, Coastal Carolina officials say. It remains unclear how many development questions would be sent to the institute for research.

In its late afternoon news release Friday, Coastal Carolina said the institute will look at issues such as “resiliency and recovery, best practices for managing natural disasters and their aftermath, effects on housing prices, and related questions.”

A key question now is whether the new Coastal Carolina development institute will review a master plan for growth in Horry County that calls for limited development in some areas targeted by builders and real estate agents for new homes. The County Council has postponed a final vote on the plan. County Councilman Johnny Vaught, who spoke with The Sun News, said Horry leaders could ask a Coastal Carolina business professor to review the document before the council acts.

The professor, Robert Salvino, would oversee the institute, according to a document shared with those funding the institute. Efforts to reach Salvino were not successful Friday, but he issued a statement in Coastal’s news release saying the institute will bring together “scholars, practitioners and policymakers.’’

Horry County’s master plan for growth, called Imagine 2040, has been in the works for almost two years and is yet to be adopted. Horry County Planning Director David Schwerd said that while a proposal to get a CCU professor to look over the plans is not official, his department always welcomes another set of eyes on its plan.

The 2040 plan is a road map for future development in Horry County as thousands of residents move in every year. The plan also informs the planning commission what kind of development is appropriate in different regions of the county.

Benjy Hardee, with A.O. Hardee and Son, asked the County Council in September to make sure the plan did not discourage development and harm thousands of people employed in the billion-dollar construction industry. Hardee’s company is well known in the Myrtle Beach area, and among other projects, worked on the Carolina Bays Parkway.

“This 2040 plan will take hostage of thousands of acres, potentially devaluing generationally held properties,” he said.

Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner said enough expert work has been done on Imagine 2040 and he wants it approved after a Nov. 21 workshop. But if someone has a good enough reason to delay the plan’s adoption, he could support it.

Hinson and Wooten, a widely known coastal engineer and consultant, said developers need a voice that the Institute for Responsible Development can provide. They are working on a more than 1,000-home project off S.C. 90 that drew concerns from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources last year.

While critics in Horry County blame development for increased flooding, that’s not accurate, Hinson and Wooten said. Hinson said Horry County has development rules that limit flooding from new development. The county has been the victim of ferocious storms that have caused flooding in recent years, Hinson and Wooten said.

“The major point to it is you’ve got a … very vocal minority who is very anti-development,’’ Wooten said. “And you have a very non-vocal majority of 26,000 or 27,000 people who work in the development industry in Horry County who don’t have a voice. The purpose of this (institute) is so that we will have a voice.’’

Wooten, with DDC Engineers, took aim at some people who attend government meetings to complain about development.

“You go to a council meeting, there are 100 people who moved down here from up North,’’ he said. “They don’t want something developed.’’

Barbara Ritter, Coastal Carolina’s business school dean, said the university has no interest in doing research to serve only developers.

The university research will instead be unbiased and driven by facts and science, Ritter said. She said the institute will involve business researchers, as well as environmental scientists, who will analyze development questions. Even though developers and business people have provided initial funding, that won’t influence research, said Ritter and retired Coastal political science professor Edgar Dyer, who came up with the idea for the institute.

“The conclusions will come from data — and then, that is it,’’ Ritter said. “We cannot be bought. That is part of the integrity that is inherent in our faculty as scientists.’’

Ritter said the institute will prove it provides solid research without bias.

“What is really needed is somebody in Horry County, Coastal Carolina University, that can produce data driven analyses that can be a legitimate authority and credible from all sides,’’ she said. “What we produce could help drive Horry County forward.’’

Dyer said the idea of forming the institute was to help avoid disputes between environmentalists and developers by relying on science. A hotly contested effort to pave International Drive near a state nature preserve dragged on for years, but that might have been avoided with university researchers examining questions in dispute, he said.

Horry Councilman Vaught told The Sun News he expects Coastal’s review to be fair. He added if the institute is allowed to review the Imagine 2040 Plan, it will be because all of council believes the process will be fair.

“They will be impartial and look at a lot of different angles,” Vaught said. “Like a peer review.”

Critics hope it turns out that way.

Beach, who has been involved in plenty of battles with Horry developers, said he is concerned the institute will be presented as conducting impartial research, when it will service developers who want to build in flood-prone areas.

Despite Ritter’s assurances that the institute will provide fair research, the Conservation League questioned why a state-funded university is taking money from developers and business interests to pay for research that could help them make money. Business-funded research has come under fire at other universities across the country because of questions about whether researchers have reached conclusions that favor businesses.

The league has not been asked to participate in helping to fund the institute or provide input, said Erin Hardwick Pate, the Conservation League’s north coast director.

“The creation of an academic institute to be housed at Coastal Carolina University is a non traditional and, in some ways, a questionable way to address development concerns,’’ Pate said. “The institute is created, funded and is now being run by dozens of developers, builders, real estate agencies, with no representation from the citizens of Horry County and, to my knowledge, there has been no attempt at collaborating with people or entities outside the development community.’’

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Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.