News | October 15, 2015

Flooding in Columbia, S.C., gives perspective on SELC’s Congaree campaign

Occasionally current events provide an important perspective on SELC’s past work. This month’s devastating floods in South Carolina underscore how important environmental safeguards are—and the vital role SELC often plays in upholding them.

In the early 2000’s, a South Carolina developer proposed a $1 billion “city within a city” south of Columbia, to be built in the floodplain of the Congaree River. The Green Diamond project sought to turn 4,600 acres of farmland and forests into 5,000 home sites, a retirement community, and a technology park. The plan relied on a miles-long system of levees that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said would increase flood hazards in neighboring areas.

The developer attacked FEMA’s conclusions about the levees and its determination that the floodplain property would be subject to destructive flood flows. SELC intervened to defend FEMA’s actions in court, and our legal arguments prevailed before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. We also uncovered efforts by the developer to politically pressure FEMA into reversing its decision and exposed that scheme in the Washington Post.

With FEMA’s flood hazards determination confirmed in court, the Green Diamond project stalled, and the developer resorted to suing the local county. This year, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that the developer was entitled to nothing from the county: the land it sought to develop was a known historic floodplain.

The tragic floods recently experienced in Columbia confirmed the accuracy of that conclusion and FEMA’s hazard mapping—much of the Green Diamond property ended up under water. The agricultural losses there, while significant, will be far less costly than had development occurred.