More than 150 people showed up to a standing-room only meeting at the Carolina Forest Recreation Center Wednesday for a presentation on RIDE III, but the conversation quickly turned to the recently delayed International Drive project.
Many residents from the Carolina Forest area and others had turned out to hear a presentation on Horry County’s next proposed 1-cent sales tax referendum, which is projected to fund $530 million in road projects if voters approve the effort in the fall of 2016. But just last Friday, the paving of International Drive project, which was approved during the last sales tax road improvement program, was delayed for a second time due to protests made by environmentalists.
Carole vanSickler, president of the Carolina Forest Civic Association, said she thinks a good part of the turnout resulted from recent events with International Drive – a road that is expected to alleviate traffic congestion in the area.
“I think it’s a combination of frustrations of residents both on the highway 90 side and the Carolina Forest side in not getting the infrastructure dealt with,” vanSickler said. “There’s always an excuse as to why the infrastructure isn’t getting done and we want Carolina Forest addressed and we want International Drive addressed.”
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The Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Wildlife Federation challenged the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s issuance of a water quality and zone consistency certification for International Drive because it does not address their concerns for the safety of black bears in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.
The planned road, which is part of the RIDE II program approved by voters in 2006, would cut through the preserve. The conservation and wildlife groups have contended the state and county should stick to the original plans to provide three bear crossings, fencing along the road and narrow the plans from four lanes to two.
DHEC staff has already approved the plans, but state law allows groups like the conservation league and the wildlife federation to ask the DHEC board to re-visit the staff’s work.
In 2010, Horry County entered into a contract with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to grant an easement to the county to allow for construction of the 5.6-mile road. In exchange for the easement, fencing and three underground passageways would be part of the plans. In 2013, the two entered into a memorandum of understanding that did not include the fencing, the narrowing of the road or the underground passageways.
On Wednesday, a letter was read on behalf of Carolina Forest resident Dennis DiSabato, who was not able to attend the meeting. DiSabato is asking to be a part of the six-member RIDE III commission to prepare a final prioritized list of road projects for RIDE III that the Horry County Council will consider. DiSabato said in his letter than he felt the Carolina Forest community is often left behind, which Mark Lazarus, Horry County Council chairman, took issue with.
“County council does not put Carolina Forest in the back seat, myself especially,” Lazarus said. “It comes down to, for this project in the Carolina Forest area, poor planning on the front end. I don’t think the developers of International Paper on the front end ever thought it would explode and grow as much as it did.”
Lazarus was quick to point out the most recent protest and said something needs to be done on the state level to prevent the easy and affordable way for groups to stop multi-million dollar projects in their tracks.
“The reality of it is we’re stopped ladies and gentlemen, we’re stopped dead in our tracks,” Lazarus said. “Because basically for the cost of a postage stamp … anybody can file a protest and object to a particular project and it has to go through a process.”
State Rep. Mike Ryhal, R-Carolina Forest, said he found it hard to understand the reasoning of spending millions of dollars on bear crossings as reports show the number of black bears in the area have dwindled.
“There’s a problem here folks, and I don’t want to be seen as anti-environmental. I am far from that,” Ryhal said. “I work very hard to preserve this area … but some things don’t make sense.”
Lazarus said he wanted to make sure people knew International Drive was going to get done, even if the challenge from environmentalists is a long, drawn-out process.
“The citizens of Horry County overwhelmingly voted for this project,” Lazarus said. “Not just the people in Carolina Forest, but everybody voted for that particular project. The money is in the bank. We have the money to pay for it, so don’t worry about that. The money is there. We’re going to get through it.”
Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or on Twitter @TSN_JRodriguez.