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Highway 17: School plan brings call for traffic improvements

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Riding on the bumper of a new traffic signal on Highway 17 between a new shopping center and the Hagley neighborhood is a call for improvements less than 2 miles to the south where a new school is proposed.

Coastal Montessori Charter School has a contract to buy 6.9 acres at the entrance to Allston Plantation where it plans to build a school for 250 students in grades one through eight. The Georgetown County Planning Commission agreed last week to recommend a zoning change to allow the school, but made final approval contingent on review of traffic impacts. Area residents say traffic on the highway, where the speed limit is 60 mph, already makes it hard to get into and out of Allston Plantation.

The school will have access from Old Plantation Drive on the south side of Hagley and from Barony Place, which is the only access road for Allston Plantation. “Getting out is our biggest problem,” said Vic Boucher, president of the homeowners association. “It could take 5 minutes, it could take 10.”

There is only room to stack about five vehicles on Barony Place between the proposed school access road and the highway, residents told the commission. There is only space in the median of Highway 17 for one vehicle to make a left turn to head north.

Old Plantation Drive also provides access to the highway and – in a round-about fashion – to Kings River Road. Tom Stickler, president of the Hagley Estates Homeowners Association, said it is important that the school campus have enough space to store cars so Old Plantation doesn’t end up clogged by parents waiting to pick up or drop off their children. That’s a long-standing problem at Waccamaw Elementary School on Waverly Road, he noted.

Coastal Montessori, which is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District, opened in 2012 in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School. It had 162 students in grades one through six this year. Only 25 of those rode a bus, according to Rob Horvath, who chairs the charter school’s board.

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The school wants to move closer to Georgetown in order to draw more minority students. A deal to buy part of the Prince George tract from the University of South Carolina fell through when residents at Prince George threatened a legal challenge. The school is seeking a $5 million federal loan to buy the Allston plantation site and build a school. It’s already a year behind schedule.

Most of the students now come from the Pawleys Island and Murrells Inlet areas, so school traffic will need to turn north on Highway 17. “I’m not optimistic about asking DOT for another traffic signal,” said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director.

The state Department of Transportation will have to approve any improvements. The school plan will also be reviewed by the state Office of School Facilities, which requires facilities to meet DOT’s access standards. Those include two driveways, ideally separating buses from other vehicles.

The property is currently approved for 50,000 square feet of commercial space, estimate to generate 800 vehicle trips a day. The school plans 25,060 square feet of classroom space with an office and gym/cafeteria adding another 23,000 square feet.

“It is less dense than what is currently permitted,” said Dan Stacy, the attorney who represented the charter school.

Tom Wywrot, an Allston Plantation resident, told the commission that there is other commercial property between the highway and the residential area that will be developed. “Figure not just today, but down the road,” he urged the commission.

“SCDOT is going to have to step in,” commission chairman Brian Henry said. “Something is going to have to be done or it’s going to be another scenario like Lowes.”

DOT announced last week it would install at traffic signal at Tyson Drive opposite the entrance to Lowes Foods on Highway 17. The grocery store opened last month and the highway median that was used by vehicles turning north from Tyson was marked as a left turn lane for southbound vehicles heading to the shopping center. The developer of the center had asked for a traffic signal, but had been turned down because the intersection was not far enough from the existing signal at the South Causeway to meet DOT standards.

After a series of accidents involving vehicles turning onto the highway at the intersection, DOT approved the new signal. That’s the scenario Boucher and other Allston Plantation residents want to avoid at Barony Place. “It’s going to be just like Tyson,” he said. “People are going to get impatient.”

A key difference is the speed limit at Tyson is 45 mph. Allston Plantation residents began asking several years ago to have the speed limit lowered on the highway in front of their neighborhood. “We’re going to try to do that again,” Boucher said.

County Council Member Ron Charlton said that’s something he will suggest. “Take that 45 clear down to Hog Heaven,” a restaurant south of Allston Plantation, he said. “People are running 65.”

The fact that DOT changed its position on the Tyson Drive traffic light makes him optimistic that something can be done at Allston Plantation. “Everybody got on it. I think that made a big difference,” Charlton said.

Other options proposed by planning staff include acceleration lanes for northbound traffic at Barony Place and Old Plantation Drive and a caution light that will give drivers warning about school traffic. “There is such immediate access to Highway 17. It creates concerns,” commission member Elizabeth Krauss said.

Neighbors: So close, yet so far

There is only one way in and out of Allston Plantation, the penultimate residential neighborhood on Waccamaw Neck before the pine forests of Arcadia Plantation. Unless you have a golf cart.

Kids driving golf carts, often towing friends on skateboards, frequently cut through the crash gate that connects the neighborhood with Old Plantation Drive in Hagley Estates, according to the head of the homeowners association. But for that, the community would be happy to open up a connection with their neighbors.

“I would love to have it,” said Vic Boucher. The golf carts “are dangerous. That’s one reason we haven’t opened it up.”

The idea of connecting Allston Plantation with Hagley was raised last week after the Georgetown County Planning Commission held a hearing on a plan to build a charter school on a lot that connects the neighborhoods.

John Thomas, who is unopposed for the County Council District 1 seat now held by Jerry Oakley, listened to Allston Plantation residents’ concerns that school traffic could hinder their only entrance. Thomas has been attending the commission meetings since he decided to run last year.

Afterward, he pointed out the crash gate to planning staff and commission members. That might solve one problem for residents, Thomas suggested.

Boyd Johnson, the county planning director, recalled that when the Allston Plantation development plan was approved in 2001 a proposed connection with Old Plantation Drive drew opposition from Hagley residents.

Some residents still have concerns, said Tom Stickler, president of the Hagley Estates Property Owners Association. After learning of Thomas’ suggestion he sent an e-mail to some of his members. “Only a couple had really strong feelings,” Stickler said.

When Allston Plantation was developed, many of the roads within Hagley were still unpaved. That made additional traffic more of a concern, Stickler said.

He said there are still concerns about traffic volume and about the speed of traffic in Hagley. Stickler doesn’t think Hagley residents would be likely to use Allston Plantation for access to Highway 17.

He was surprised to learn about the problem with kids and golf carts, since those are likely to originate in Hagley.

“If you can make sure they can’t come through on our roads, we would consider it,” Boucher said. The golf carts create a liability, he noted.

County Council Member Ron Charlton, who represents both areas, said it might be time to review the connection between the neighborhoods. “Traffic patterns have changed a little bit,” he said. “It wouldn’t be an alternate for 17,” but could improve access.

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