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Education: CCU lease is up, but higher ed center will expand

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

The owner of the property that houses the Waccamaw Higher Education Center doesn’t know if Coastal Carolina University will continue to occupy the space. But he’s moving forward with plans to expand the facility all the same.

A request was filed last month with the state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management for a permit to fill about three quarters of an acre of isolated wetlands to allow for the expansion at the site off Willbrook Boulevard.

Plans show a 10,000-square-foot building, which is a typical size for roughly an acre of ground, said Steve Goggans, the property owner. A total of 1.4 acres would be affected.

“We were approached in the past by the school about wanting to expand,” Goggans said. “Now their plans are very much in flux ... but with the process already having momentum, we wanted to pursue this, because I think, long-term, this property will continue to have some sort of institutional or cultural use and some additional space might be needed.”

Goggans wouldn’t say more about the university’s plans, and David DeCenzo, the university’s president, didn’t return phone calls. However, someone from DeCenzo’s office said the school didn’t know anything about the permit application. Linda Ketron, director of the university’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which operates out of the center, was also unaware of the permit request.

Officials are looking at moving CCU programs to the Litchfield Exchange, according to people familiar with the plan, but who asked not to be named.

The university also considered a move three years ago when its lease came up for renewal. Months before that, the university thought about closing the center, which opened in 2004 and was built to CCU’s specifications. At the time, it was paying about $300,000 a year for rent and maintenance. The rent has since gone up, according to those who are familiar with the terms.

Coastal Resources is taking comments on the permit request.

Goggans said work on the site would start as soon as the agency gives its approval.

The wetlands he wants to fill are under a conservation easement held by the League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club, but an agreement was worked out to protect a larger area of wetlands in exchange for the filling at Willbrook.

“Several years ago they approached us asking would we consider releasing the easement if they purchased mitigation credits somewhere else,” said Amy Armstrong, head of the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which represents the local league and the Sierra Club chapters.

The answer was a quick and definite “no,” which led to a proposal that a conservation easement on wetlands near Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Church be offered instead. It’s a bigger area than the one at the higher education center — about 2.5 acres of wetlands and three quarters of an acre of high ground. It’s on Highway 17, which means it’s also more visible. The new easement would include buffers around the wetlands, too.

Members of the league and the Sierra Club decided a switch would provide more overall benefit to the community, not only because of the extra acreage, but “because the protected area would be right along Highway 17 in the view corridor that we are slowly losing to developments,” Armstrong said.

Additionally, there was talk of a billboard being built in the upland part of the tract, she said. The benefits were deemed significant enough to merit an exchange, and Armstrong said she supported the decision.

“Another factor we considered is that when the Litchfield campus was built, they directed all of the stormwater away from the wetland, altering the hydrology and the functions of that wetland,” Armstrong said.

As a result, the wetland has been degraded because it doesn’t receive enough water. While that alone wouldn’t have justified giving up the easement, the other factors made the swap an attractive bargain for everyone.

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