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Highway 17: DOT sets out improvements for new school’s traffic

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The state Department of Transportation will require changes at the intersection of Highway 17 and Old Plantation Drive to accommodate traffic for a new school. But the agency says it will wait until the school is open before deciding whether a lower speed limit or caution signs are needed.

“It said about the same thing we said,” said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director. The Planning Commission approved the location of the campus of Coastal Montessori Charter School in July, but made it a condition that the traffic plan will come back for further review.

The school plans to buy 6.9 acres at the entrance to Allston Plantation for a 49,060 square foot facility. The school opened in 2012 in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School. With its own building, the school plans to add grades seven and eight. It now has 180 students in grades one through six.

The school will have access through Allston Plantation and from Old Plantation Drive on the southern edge of Hagley Estates. Residents in both areas have told the county they are concerned about traffic impacts. Allston Plantation residents would like DOT to lower the speed limit in the area from 60 to 45 mph, something County Council Member Ron Charlton says he supports.

“I’m not a fan of low speed limits, but I think that’s a good argument there,” Johnson said.

DOT wants the school to install an acceleration lane for northbound vehicles turning out of Old Plantation Drive onto Highway 17. It also wants a right-turn lane at Old Plantation for southbound traffic. Both improvements were discussed by the Planning Commission – along with caution lights and a lower speed limit –but members noted the actual requirements rested with DOT.

While there are caution lights in many places, “we don’t know if it will warrant one,” said Michael Bethea, DOT’s district traffic engineer. His staff took part in the review of the school project along with a DOT engineer from Columbia who specializes in schools.

“It was exactly what we were anticipating,” said Rob Horvath, who chairs the Coastal Montessori board. Charter schools receive public funds, but have their own boards and are free from some regulations. The Georgetown County School District sponsors Coastal Montessori.

Horvath hopes County Council will support efforts to get a lower speed limit on Highway 17. “I would certainly rather see it 45 mph in front of the school,” he said.

The school is seeking a $5.5 million loan from the federal Rural Development agency to buy the property and build the school. The application is under review in Columbia and Washington, D.C. The school hopes to get approval by the end of September and move into the new building in late 2015 or early 2016.

The construction budget includes $250,000 for road work. “I don’t think we’ll spend that,” Horvath said. But DOT also recommended the school look for ways to stack more cars on its campus during pick-up and drop-off time. That was something recommended to the Planning Commission by Tom Stickler, president of the Hagley Estates Homeowners Association.

The school may be able to change its driveway plan if it seeks a waiver from the state Office of School Facilities. Charter schools don’t get public funds for transportation, so the state requirement for separate car and bus lanes may not be needed, Horvath said. Only 25 students rode the bus last year.

County Council must give two more readings to the ordinance to change the Allston Plantation “planned development” to allow the school. The property is currently zoned for commercial use. “We believe this will be a lesser traffic impact than something that’s going to be there 365 days a year,” Horvath said.

“They’ll have a peak in the morning and a peak in the afternoon,” Bethea said. “Commercial can be all day.”

The school will get caution signs on Old Plantation Drive, but won’t have a locator sign on Highway 17, Bethea said. Those are limited to high schools that have stadiums, he said.

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