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Highway 17: Council election revives median debate

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Whatever its impact on traffic safety, the median of Highway 17 through Pawleys Island is a place where politics and rhetoric collide.

Opponents of a plan to replace the paved median with a raised median to limit left turns issued documents this week they say prove that Georgetown County Council has authority to change the project. The Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway has unsuccessfully pressed the council to review the median plan and its former chairman, Steve Goggans, is now a candidate for County Council District 6.

In a forum sponsored by the Waccamaw Neck Republican Club a supporter of incumbent Council Member Bob Anderson challenged Goggans’ claim that the council can change the project. “County Council has been beaten up for not responding,” said Howard Ward. “They don’t have a player in the game.”

The project would replace the two-way left-turn lane along 1.8 miles of Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island business district with a raised median with openings for left turns and U-turns. It would also add two traffic lights that would be linked to existing lights at Waverly and Martin Luther King roads and respond to traffic conditions.

At last week’s GOP forum, Goggans said Ward was “inaccurate and a little bit misinformed” and said he could offer proof of the county’s role. David Gundling, who now leads the Citizens Coalition, sent out copies of a handwritten note from state Sen. Ray Cleary and a letter from Mike Wooten, who represents the 7th Congressional District on the state Department of Transportation Commission. “Unfortunately only Georgetown County Council can make any changes or stop the median project,” Cleary wrote Jan Devereux, an owner of the Island Shops, last May. “Georgetown County Council could ask for the opportunity to review the project,” Wooten wrote to state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, explaining that any recommendations for change would require DOT review.

Ward, a Pawleys Island Town Council member, wasn’t persuaded. “At the end of the day, what it’s saying is that they can study it and make recommendations,” he said of Wooten’s letter. As for Cleary, he’s only one member of the county’s legislative delegation, he noted.

“I still stand by what I said that he does not have proof,” Ward said.

He isn’t the only one standing pat.

“I stand by that remark,” Cleary said of his note about the council’s role. “GSATS is the key.”

The Grand Strand Area Transportation Study is made up of state, regional and local government planners and charged with setting priorities for transportation projects. Georgetown County has a representative on the transportation study policy committee. That representative, currently Council Member Jerry Oakley, could ask the committee to stop or change the project. There would be a financial penalty, Cleary said. “The county’s representative isn’t going to say that unless County Council agrees, he said.

“I don’t believe Ray’s opinion is correct,” state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch said. He was asked by median opponents to endorse Cleary’s view, but refused. “It’s incorrect. County Council doesn’t have absolute authority.”

He was told by the DOT project manager, Leah Quattlebaum, that any decisions are made jointly by the county, DOT, the GSATS staff and the consulting engineers. “It’s confusing,” Goldfinch said. “Most people want to be able to point their finger.”

Cleary said that Oakley and Anderson want to shift responsibility. “If you take a stand, stick with it. Don’t point fingers,” he said.

He cited the example of a curb cut on Bypass 17 approved for Palmetto Heritage Bank over the objection of county officials. The cut was requested by state Sen. Yancey McGill. DOT said it wouldn’t approve the cut if County Council made a formal objection, Cleary said. None was made.

Anderson said he got an opinion from the county attorney about the council’s role in the median project after Cleary’s note was made public by opponents last year. “Jerry and I finally said, ‘This is a DOT project,”’ Anderson said. “When [Cleary] wrote that he didn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Anderson agrees that the GSATS committee might consider a request from the county to review the project. “But we’re a year and a half down the road. I would have loved to have done that at the get-go,” he said.

He pointed out that Goggans and other median opponents didn’t approach the county with their concerns until three months after DOT’s public comment period on the project closed in May 2012. “In the development stage, a lot of things could have been done,” Oakley said. But he said that changes have been made and without the county’s input.

“DOT has changed the project countless times. The county wasn’t even consulted,” he said. He called Cleary’s view of the county’s role “outrageously wrong.”

Anderson and Goggans are on the ballot in the June 10 Republican primary. No Democrat has filed for the seat, which includes the area on Highway 17 proposed for the median project.

Anderson said if Goggans and other median opponents want to make another pitch to DOT and GSATS staff he is willing to set up another meeting. “If Steve wants, I would be more than willing to try to arrange another meeting for him with the decision makers at SCDOT, to give him one more opportunity to make his case with SCDOT, which so far he has not been able to do,” Anderson said.

“That’s interesting,” Goggans said. “It sounds a lot like an election-year gimmick, but I don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”

He pointed out that he is no longer chairman of the Citizens Coalition. Anderson said Goggans can bring any other concerned citizens to the table.

“I’ve always been willing to talk, persuade and present our case,” Goggans said. But he added, “my fear is it’s way too down-the-road and late to be engaging in this.”

Anderson said he’s attended more meetings with median opponents than he can count and is skeptical that they have anything new to offer, but he wants to refute the claim he and Oakley were unwilling to listen to concerns about the project.

Goggans remains convinced County Council was the place to go to try to change the project. He also noted Anderson didn’t attend any of the coalition’s public meetings.

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