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Highway 17: Opponents of raised median make case to council

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Opponents of a concrete median to prevent left turns on Highway 17 through the Pawleys Island area tried to make their case Tuesday for Georgetown County Council to intercede and stop the state Department of Transportation project before construction begins next year.

The plan for 1.9 miles of Highway 17 from Baskervill Drive to Waverly Road calls for installing a 6-inch raised median with 20 breaks for left turns and U-turns, nine for northbound and 11 for southbound traffic. New traffic lights would be installed at Hotel Street and the post office.

During time set aside for public comment, speakers said the raised median would hurt businesses, reduce tax revenue, cause accidents, force delivery trucks through residential neighborhoods and turn the road into a “concrete jungle”.

Ultimately, opponents wanted to be sure council members would attend their meeting June 20 at Waccamaw High School when changes will be recommended by traffic engineer Eric Tripi of the firm Iteris. He was hired by the coalition opposing the median to develop alternatives to a plan developed for DOT by Rick Day of Stantac. Both firms are based in Charleston.

Steve Goggans, owner of SGA Architecture and a member of the Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway, told members of County Council it’s their job to consider wider interests than the movement of traffic through Pawleys Island. He said the median would work against the idea of interconnectivity and the future land use plan in addition to being pedestrian unfriendly. “This plan turns us back,” Goggans said. “The current plan lacks vision. DOT does not care about side-street access, economic impact or esthetics. However, the mission of County Council is to look out for wider interests.”

He asked council members to pass a resolution for more study of the project and to attend the meeting June 20 to “find a way to find a solution.”

A similar effort by members of the coalition last fall was rebuffed. Despite the coalition’s claims, council members have said it isn’t up to them to change the plan. The county is part of the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study and the median project has already been approved. The design phase is nearing completion, and construction is scheduled for 2014.

Council Member Bob Anderson said the arguments against the median sound like “shaky excuses not to do anything.”

He’s not committing to attend the meeting June 20 but planned to talk with Goggans and Mark Hoeweler, assistant director of Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments who coordinates projects for the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study.

“I’m culling through the design,” Anderson said Wednesday morning. “I’m looking for empirical data, but all I keep hearing is economic impact and subjective stuff.”

Anderson said he’s identified three primary issues with the median: safety, traffic flow and beautification. “We can’t do nothing,” he said. “The median plan is the lesser of two evils.”

He said the coalition is late to the game with suggestions for changing the plans, and the county is neither funding nor managing the project.

On the lawn of the old county courthouse where the council meets, members of the coalition passed out “Don’t Strip the Neck” stickers for protesters to wear during Tuesday’s meeting. During the comment period, median opponents divided their talking points during their presentations.

David Gundling, an attorney and coalition member, said the state Department of Transportation looks at this as a highway through a community.

“This plan does not take into consideration the conceptual plan for growth,” he said. “We have for over a year tried to get some relief. Only Georgetown County can make any changes or stop the median project. On behalf of 1,584 petitioners and 147 businesses in Pawleys Island, we request that County Council take under consideration a resolution to adopt some type group to put together some type plan that would be best for our community and not rely on what DOT wants in Columbia.”

Michael Hirsch, a financial adviser with Wells Fargo in the Pawleys Business Center, asked council members to appoint a task force to reexamine the median plan from a safety standpoint.

“A lot of my clients are in their 70s, 80s and even 90s,” he said, “but safety concerns are for the elderly and non-elderly. A U-turn in 45-mile-per-hour traffic increases the possibility of accidents. From a tourism standpoint, a lot of restaurants are going to be blocked by this median. I can see a tourist who can’t turn into Bistro 217 becoming frustrated and distracted. That creates a lot of potential for accidents here.”

Alicia Hart said she has raised a family and built a business during her 26 years in Pawleys Island. “I am concerned about the negative impact and loss of property values,” she said. “My main irritation from this whole project is that it was sold as a beautification project to look like Litchfield, yet there’s no plan for any landscaping, nothing but a concrete jungle. The medians and U-turns harm Pawleys Island’s natural beauty. Why not continue the look Litchfield has?”

Doug Bohardt, part-owner of the Sonic Drive-In, said he spent 18 hours over three days tracking his customers’ traffic patterns. He said 597 of the total 8,790 customers left his business in the direction they came. He estimated that customers in the future would have to make 411 U-turns a day to enter Sonic. “That is the best case scenario,” Bohardt said. “Many customers will find other food outlets. We will no longer be able to help the community. Tax revenue will decline. We would possibly have to shut our doors.” An additional downside, he said to members of the Parkersville community attending Tuesday’s meeting to protest a rezoning proposal, would be that delivery trucks would be forced to drive through their neighborhood.

Lou Lachicotte, president of the Lachicotte Co., said the median would restrict access to businesses, leading them to ultimately fail or relocate. She said the confusion caused by the new traffic patterns would lead to more accidents during the summer tourist season. “It’s just not going to work very well,” she said.

Mindy McVay said she was concerned about safety and congestion. “I don’t see how 17 U-turns will be safer,” she said.

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