Upstate Group Fighting Saluda River Project

July 18, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveElizabeth “Lib” Tickle and the more than 70 people who live on or own land along stretch of the Saluda River in the Upstate are fighting a taxpayer-funded project they say will harm the river and their properties.

Their recently formed group, known as Saluda River Roots (www.saludariverroots.com), is trying to stop a longtime conservation organization known as the Naturaland Trust from installing “rock vanes,” or U-shaped rows of large stones, in a several-thousand-foot-long stretch of the river separating Greenville and Pickens counties.

The river stretch runs parallel to the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway (S.C. 11/U.S. 276) south of Caesars Head State Park. In court papers, Naturaland said it wants to improve the trout habitat in the affected stretch.

So far, Saluda River Roots has been on the losing end of a court fight over a permit to construct the rock vanes. Last month, S.C. Administrative Law Court Judge Carolyn Matthews ruled that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control “acted properly in its processing, review and issuance” of the permit.

Last week, Matthews denied a motion by Tickle, who filed an appeal on behalf of Saluda River Roots challenging the permit, to reconsider the ruling.

Tickle, who, according to court papers, has owned about 29 acres on both sides of the South Saluda River since 1995, told The Nerve last week that her group is debating whether to appeal Matthews’ ruling to the S.C. Court of Appeals.

“We’re disappointed and concerned,” Tickle said. “We’re amazed about the amount of (taxpayer) money being spent.”

The group is supporting two state bills (H. 4118, S. 800) calling for a moratorium on rock-vane permits issued by DHEC for the South Saluda River “until a study of the impact that cross vanes have on erosion is completed.”

The joint resolutions, sponsored by Rep. Tom Corbin, R-Greenville, and Sen. Phil Shoopman, R-Greenville, were introduced in April, though neither proposal made it out of committee.

“The property owners up in the area had concerns with the project that it may cause some erosion,” Corbin told The Nerve on Friday, “and they made a pretty good case that it could happen.”

“I asked the other side if there is erosion, could you come back and fix it,” Corbin continued, “and the answer I got was ‘no,’ so I thought the best way to go was to hold it up (pending a study).”

Still, Corbin acknowledged that unless an appeals court reverses last month’s ruling, the project likely could go forward this year even if the resolution passes next legislative session.

Contacted Friday, DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick declined comment on the bills or specifics of the Saluda River Roots’ appeal. But he noted that his agency “considers the permits to be effective once they’re issued.”

Tickle appealed to the Administrative Law Court after the DHEC board declined to hear her appeal of the decision to issue the permit, Myrick said.

The Saluda River Roots properties are located near the project site. Tickle told The Nerve that some of the land has been family-owned since the late 1700s.

Most of the project site is owned by Naturaland Trust, a nonprofit organization that describes itself in court papers as the second-oldest land trust in the state and a “the catalyst and the champion for one of the greatest conservation achievements in the United States – the protection of over 100,000 acres of the globally significant Blue Ridge Escarpment in northwestern South Carolina.”

The 110 acres of the project site owned by Naturaland are protected from development by a conservation easement granted to Upstate Forever, a nonprofit environmental organization, according to court papers filed by Naturaland.

“These (rock-vane) devices will improve the quality of the river,” Frank Holleman, the Naturaland board president and an attorney who represented his group in the appeal, told The Nerve last week.

Hidden Agenda?

Tickle said she and her organization believe that the project is part of a larger plan to make the area a major tourist attraction – regardless, she contends, of the harm it could bring to the river and land with erosion and litter.

“Their goal is to attract 160,000 tourists a year so they can fill hotels in Greenville,” she said.

In court papers, Tickle said DHEC ignored “substantial and compelling” evidence that the main purpose of the project is to “create an artificial kayak run that would substantially change the nature of this portion of the river.” The rock-vane structures would create faster water flows attractive to kayakers, according to court papers.

As evidence of the tourist plans, Tickle’s court file includes a brochure by Greenville County officials and other supporters touting two proposed tourism projects: “The Blue Wall Centre,” an outdoor interpretative center to be located near the rock-vane site; and a downtown Greenville venue showcasing environmental tourism opportunities in the Upstate, to be called “The Go Experience.”

Tickle in court papers contended that putting the rock-vane structures in the river, “like prior stone or concrete obstructions in adjoining portions of the stream, will fail during significant flooding events that regularly occur in this area, thereby causing substantial erosion of the stream banks, likely changes in the course of the river, and increased danger from flooding to area residents.”

Tickle told The Nerve that her stretch of the river usually is only “ankle deep,” but can rise to more than 8 feet in heavy rains.

Supporters of rock-vane project say that the structures will direct water flow to the center of the river, creating riffles and pools that attract trout. Tickle said there has been no native trout population in her stretch of the river, noting the state Department of Natural Resources for decades regularly has stocked it.

She added that according to longtime neighbors, other species of fish disappeared after the  Department of Natural Resources introduced rainbow trout in the river in the early 1970s.

Rep. Corbin said he is not opposed to improving trout fishing in the river. “But,” he added, “I’m very concerned about the property owners and how it will affect them.”

Taxpayer Cost

Besides environmental damage, the rock-vane project also will be costly to taxpayers, according to Tickle. Citing figures from a review of similar projects in North Carolina, many of which, she asserted, have failed, Tickle estimated the total cost of installing 32 rock-vane structures along a 4,800-foot stretch of the South Saluda River at $1.2 million.

But Holleman disputed many of Tickle’s figures and assertions.

Referring to Judge Matthews’ ruling, Holleman said the project would involve 15 rock vanes to be placed along a 2,964-foot stretch of the river adjoining property owned by Naturaland and a smaller parcel being purchased by the organization.

The project is being funded with an approximate $100,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant through that agency’s Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program, Holleman said.

Holleman stressed that the project will neither harm the river nor properties owned by the Saluda River Roots group. He pointed out that Matthews’ ruling was based largely on testimony from an S.C.-licensed engineer with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, and that Tickle did not present any expert testimony on her group’s behalf during a hearing.

Tickle, who was represented by Greenville attorney Melvin Hutson, claimed during the hearing that similar rock-vane projects on the Eastatoee River in Pickens County and the Little River in Oconee County failed, according to court records.

Holleman told The Nerve, though, that pictures introduced by Tickle during the hearing showed only the condition of those rivers at the time of her on-site visits rather than before-and-after conditions.

“They basically produced no evidence,” Holleman said.

In her written request that Judge Matthews reconsider last month’s ruling, Tickle said, “We continue to believe that in many instances, lay expertise about this river derived from decades and generations of personal contact with it is superior to and more reliable than the opinion of experts.”

‘No One Owns the River’

Holleman said that under the S.C. Constitution, “no one owns the river,” meaning that anglers, kayakers and others have the right to use the South Saluda River without the permission of Tickle or other adjoining property owners, though river users have to comply with the law.

“This talk about property rights is exactly backwards,” he said, pointing out that none of the project site land is owned by any members of Saluda River Roots. “They’re the ones telling us what we can do on our property.”

But Tickle said the project does affect the property rights of those who belong to her group.

“They want the land that we own,” she said. “Since we won’t sell, they plan on using it anyway.”

Holleman contended that the views of the Saluda River Roots group are in the minority, noting that a broad group of local and state environmental agencies and organizations, including the older nonprofit group known as Save Our Saluda, supports the project.

At the time of the appeal, Holleman, now a lawyer with the Virginia-based nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center, worked at the Wyche Burgess Freeman and Parham law firm in Greenville.

The firm’s senior member is Thomas Wyche, who, according to Holleman, founded Naturaland Trust in 1973. Wyche was listed in 2009 federal income tax records for the organization as the board chairman.

Wyche is the father of Greenville attorney Brad Wyche, executive director of Upstate Forever. As of 2009, Brad Wyche was Naturaland’s board vice president and served from 1999 to 2003 as chairman of the S.C. Board of Health and Environmental Control, which oversees DHEC, records show.

Brad Wyche did not return a phone message left for him last week by The Nerve.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.