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An unhappy median: Opponents fear impact on Pawleys business district

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Mickey Stikas, owner of the Village Shops in the Pawleys Island area, says county leaders are failing the people who elected them over the issue of a traffic median being planned for Highway 17.

“Our political class in this county — and I’ve got no problem calling them all out — are so invested in what they’ve done and avoiding criticism for making a mistake that they are willing to shove all the unintended consequences down our throats,” he said. “That’s just wrong.”

Stikas was not among a number of people representing the Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway to address Georgetown County Council last week about changing plans for a 6-inch-high median to eliminate left turns on Highway 17 through the Pawleys Island business district. Median foes have planned a public meeting tonight at 7 at Waccamaw High School and they made a point to invite council members during presentations last week.

Stikas said he has parted ways with the coalition because it’s not being aggressive enough in its attempts to stop the median. At first, he said, he liked the idea when he saw plans nearly 10 years ago at a meeting seeking public input. Now, he’s ready to go to court to stop it.

“It’s not what it was intended to be,” Stikas said, “not what was originally sold. A presentation made at the time was a continuation of the Litchfield median, 34 feet wide. You were not going to lose a lane because they were going to use the entire right of way and put in a full-sized median. They decided to do it on the cheap when they saw what it was going to cost so we end up with a 15.5-foot median and it was supposed to be landscaped.”

A study in 2003 proposed a six-lane Highway 17 through Pawleys Island. People objected, Stikas said, because its sole purpose was to expedite the movement of traffic between Myrtle Beach and Charleston. DOT held meetings and accepted comments, but Stikas doesn’t think his comments were ever recorded.

Stikas said the state Department of Transportation has failed to talk to people who drive on Highway 17 and listen to their problems to develop a solution. “The contract doesn’t say to solve the problem. It says design a median. That’s the dishonesty of the whole thing,” he said. “We have requested something simple: a citizen task force appointed by council. It’s a dishonest process, and it pains me to say it, but County Council is complicit in this. The problem is they can’t change because they got this free money from the federal government. For them to go back and say, ‘Oops, we screwed up.’ might jeopardize their funding. You know something, so be it. It’s the arrogance of government. We’re used to it from the federal government. We’ve got the same political class attitude on Georgetown County Council than we have in the federal government. They know what’s best for us and won’t listen to us.”

The median was put on the fast track years ago, Stikas claims, because of the impending housing boom at Arcadia Plantation. Plans called for 3,500 new residences that were never built. There’s no reason for it now, he said.

The message board at the Sonic restaurant in Pawleys Island has carried the coalition’s catchphrase “Don’t Strip The Neck” for months. The group was hoping to build on momentum from “Don’t Box The Neck” while claiming that the median proposal would harm stand-alone businesses and lead to more strip development.

Doug Bohardt, part-owner of the Sonic Drive-In, said he’s not met a customer who supports the plan to eliminate left turns from the middle lane with a series of U-turns. “No one supports the median as they learn more about it,” he said this week.

Businesses like Sonic that depend on impulse traffic are likely to be hardest hit by the elimination of left turns. Bohardt said he recorded traffic into his restaurant for 18 hours and customers in the future would have to make 411 U-turns a day to maintain the same traffic.

He went public last week after reading a letter from Sen. Ray Cleary that County Council could change the median plan. “They’re hiding behind DOT,” Bohardt said. “It’s frustrating.”

Pharmacist Glenn Cox remembers when the lanes of Highway 17 were separated by a ditch through most of the Pawleys Island area. “I came here in 1974,” he said, “and at that time the only paved median was between Marlow’s Store and the Hammock Shops. DOT paved the median because it said it would be safer.”

Cox owns Pawleys Island Beach Service near the southern end of the current median project area. “The impact on the bike shop is going to be drastic,” he said. Many of his customers are tourists who are unfamiliar with the location and the traffic patterns. Eliminating left turns will confuse them even more, he fears. The plan calls for a traffic signal and U-turn lane at the post office, but Cox said he couldn’t see the point of putting a light there.

Cox has other businesses, Pawleys Island Pharmacy and the adjoining compounding pharmacy and Pawleys Island Outdoors in the area of Highway 17 that will be next to get a concrete median. The area between Waverly Road and the South Causeway has been planned, but funding has not been appropriated for the work.

Cox says the pharmacy is in most jeopardy of losing business if left turns are eliminated. “It’s difficult to get from the medical buildings across the street now,” he said. Forcing U-turns on drivers will create an advantage for chain pharmacies CVS and Walgreen that have either a turn lane or traffic light.

He’s not as worried about Pawleys Island Outdoors because it’s near Blue Stem Drive, a likely traffic crossing.

“I hate to see it,” Cox said of the median. “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”

He said he had e-mailed his councilman, Bob Anderson, but hasn’t received a response. “The councilman representing this area,” Cox said, “doesn’t want to hear what the citizens have to say.”

David Gundling, an attorney and coalition organizer, said he is hoping for a good turnout at tonight’s meeting after getting 2,000 names on a petition opposing the median plan. He’s hoping to get the median on County Council’s next agenda so he can ask that a local task force be appointed to examine the project.

He said the coalition had asked council to appoint a task force last September, but it refused. “This would have all been over by now,” Gundling said. “It’s aggravating that they are not responsive. We have encouraged County Council to work with us rather than against us. This affects the whole character of Pawleys Island.”

Gundling said people don’t realize there will be no landscaping in the median because there’s no money for irrigation or plants. “People were excited about landscaping that would look like Litchfield,” he said. “It can’t be more than a foot high because of the U-turns. They’ve misrepresented the actual landscaping in the median.”

It’s a shame that the Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway, a group opposing the median plan, had to spend $10,000 on a report from highway engineer Eric Tripi in order to oppose the state Department of Transportation, Stikas said. Tripi’s report recommended alternatives to the plan that would replace unlimited left turns on Highway 17 between Waverly Road and Baskervill Drive with U-turns and two additional traffic signals.

Stikas said he favors an option in Tripi’s report that spaces traffic islands in the center lane. They wouldn’t restrict left turns but would keep motorists from driving on the center lane. Stikas said that Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach has addressed a similar problem with strategically placed islands with palm trees and maintenance free shrubs along with reducing the speed limit. “It solved the problem,” he said, “and everybody is happy.”

Stikas favors reducing the speed limit through the Pawleys Island business district from 45 to 30 mph. “People are going to be forced to make uncontrolled U-turns on a road where we’ve got traffic shooting down the road at 55 mph. Everybody goes 10 miles an hour over the limit. We are going to have serious crashes. Nothing will control stupidity.”

Another angle that has received little concern, Stikas said, is hurricane evacuation. Once the southbound lanes are clogged with cars, U-turns will be impossible.

Eliminating 20 percent of the roadway in front of his property will have a direct impact on his tenants’ sales and ultimately his rents as their landlord, Stikas said.

“Commercial property taxes fund the bulk of government in this county,” he said. “Sixty percent comes from business property taxes and second homes. When they restrict access to this place and my tenants lose 20 percent of their business that will be enough for some of them to fail because they’ve had a rough five years. Others will be looking for rent concessions, and as a landlord I will have to accept that. But that reduction in business is going to mean less property taxes. Where are they going to make up the difference? It’s a bad plan.”

Stikas said he’s been advocating legal action against the county, the Department of Transportation and the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study in state and federal courts. “I don’t think they are meeting the criteria for grant money,” he said. “County Council is the culprit. It’s a war on small business to feed their ravenous appetite for tax dollars, like this Walmart deal.

“I’m a big proponent that if something doesn’t make sense to follow the money. I can’t follow the money in this one. It doesn’t make sense, but I can’t see anybody profiting from it. It’s a lose, lose, lose for everybody, including the county.”

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