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Highway 17: Median opponents drop plans for lawsuit

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

DOT and the contractor for a $3.75 million median project on Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island business district will hold a pre-construction meeting next week with no sign of opposition on the horizon. The citizens group that opposed the design for a raised median said this week it has dropped plans to file suit although it had raised $100,000 for the effort.

“We weren’t going to seek a frivolous lawsuit,” said David Gundling, chairman of the Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway.

The project will install a raised median with 17 designated left- and U-turn cuts along 1.9 miles of Highway from Waverly Road to Baskervill Drive. It will install new traffic signals at the Pawleys Island Post Office and the Hotel Drive/Jetty Drive intersections. Those lights and the existing signals at Waverly Road and Martin Luther King Road will be controlled by computer to react to traffic conditions.

Business owners are concerned the limited left turns will discourage customers. Opponents also believe the U-turns will be unsafe as well as inconvenient. But none of those concerns provided grounds for a suit to halt the project, according to lawyers with the Bellamy Law Firm. They began working with the citizens coalition in the spring after County Council refused requests to create a task force to review the design. “We felt that was the nuclear option,” Gundling said.

In the end, the coalition was told its arguments would fizzle in court. Opponents claimed meetings DOT held in 2012 to get public comment on the project misrepresented its scope. The lawyers said that was too subjective, Gundling said.

The economic impact of reduced access to businesses is an issue raised in another case that’s still on appeal, and the coalition was told any claims would have to be brought by individuals. Safety wasn’t a viable issue to challenge because there is no similar project that provides data for comparison, Gundling said.

“In spite of our community’s inability to stop this project, there is much to be encouraged about,” said Steve Goggans, who led the coalition before stepping aside to run for County Council. He defeated Council Member Bob Anderson in the Republican primary and is unopposed in November.

He said the support the coalition received in petitions and donations shows people are concerned about planning and growth. “The recent median project is merely one manifestation of the many larger issues that confront our community,” Goggans said.

The coalition will keep watch for any plans to extend the raised median father south along Highway 17. County Council has adopted a resolution supporting the extension, but hasn’t asked for any funds through the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, according to Mark Hoeweler, the senior staff member for the intergovernmental organization. It sets priorities for funding of DOT projects in the region. Those funds are allocated through 2019, he said.

“The political avenue is the avenue to address,” Gundling said. That was one of the lessons the coalition learned over the last two years.

Members have also discussed the idea of forming a municipality in the area, which would provide greater control over projects such as the median, but don’t have any immediate plans to pursue that, he said.

Although the coalition ran ads opposing Anderson in the primary, Gundling said its leaders haven’t considered an endorsement in the House District 108 race. Rep. Stephen Goldfinch said last week he had a change of heart after refusing to support the coalition’s claim that County Council was the body that could stop or change the median project. He now agrees with state Sen. Ray Cleary that the council, through its seat on the transportation study policy committee, could have influenced the outcome.

Had he reached that conclusion earlier, “it might have helped us,” Gundling said.

Vida Miller, a former state representative who owns a business in the project area, says Goldfinch should have done more to support the coalition.

Palmetto Paving of Conway was the low bidder for the project at $3.37 million. The company is currently completing a portion of the Bike the Neck path from Willbrook Boulevard to Waccamaw Elementary School. There was only one other bidder.

Work is due to be completed by the end of November 2015.

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