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Ongoing International Drive delays trigger petition; environmentalists continue study on bear crossings

Felicia Soto and her husband Luis bought a home along S.C. 90 seven years ago under the premise that International Drive would be paved by 2013 to allow for easier access between S.C. 90 and Carolina Forest.

It’s 2015, and no dirt has been moved.

“It’s not primarily for our home values,” said Felicia Soto, whose home is about a quarter mile from where International Drive and S.C. 90 would meet. “Yes, we’d love our home values to go up, but more importantly it’s really for safety.”

“This is a road that isn’t just a convenience road,” she said, referencing the 2013 nearby Windsor Green fire that impacted 110 condominiums and 26 buildings. “If that happened here, we wouldn’t have had access to get out of here. This really is long, long overdue... What is the constant delay?”

Ongoing delays in getting the 5.6-mile new road built — including another delay that surfaced this month with the challenge from environmental groups over a permit because bear crossings weren’t included in the plan — have led to a petition to move forward on the road immediately that garnered more than 600 signatures both online and door-to-door in a few weeks and have prompted community meetings that attracted more than 150 frustrated homeowners.

Voters approved the road in November 2006 as part of the RIDE II program, which collects a 1-cent sales tax to pay for the projects on the list. Nearly all the others, including the $118 million bridge on U.S. 17 Bypass and the back gate, are either done or underway.

Horry County officials point to environmental groups for the two delays in this project and others. Environmental groups filed comments in 2010 to the construction of the southern extension of S.C. 31 and the widening of S.C. 707, delaying those projects and others scheduled to be done after those --including International Drive -- by two years.

Officials with the Coastal Conservation League, which filed the comments through the Southern Environmental Law Center, have contested the claims that they forced the delay of the projects. They say revisions to the road plans by county or state officials caused the delays.

Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said no matter the cause of the delays, he plans to be persistent.

“I believe the majority of the citizens in Carolina Forest want it paved and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure it does get paved,” Lazarus said.

Carole vanSickler, president of the Carolina Forest Civic Association, said there’s been a lot of frustration built up over the years on both the Carolina Forest side and along S.C. 90.

“International Drive should have been done years ago,” van Sickler said. “It is a priority. It shows a weakness in the RIDE program, because the program was held up by various other environmentalists and other groups, and still doesn’t handle the infrastructure problems.

“Homeowners from the group Highway 90 and the other side of Conway have been asking why. Why after all this time? The bear issue is the bear issue. It’s been addressed, it’s been resolved. We should just move forward and get the project done. We want International Drive opened.”

Unbearable delays

Construction of the road, which is part of the RIDE II program approved by voters in 2006, was delayed as preliminary work such as right-of-way acquisition and design was underway. State law says if voters approve a road improvement program, projects must get done in the order presented to voters. Right of way acquisitions and permit applications for International Drive began in 2009 when the environmentalists filed their comments on the S.C. 31 and S.C. 707 projects, delaying all of them for two years. They were supposed to be done by the time officials started talking about the next round of RIDE road projects that will be put to voters in 2016. Those talks started in early 2014.

International Drive would cut through the Lewis Ocean Bay Preserve. The conservation and wildlife groups say the state and county should stick to the original plans to provide three bear crossings and fencing along the road and narrow the planned road from four lanes to two.

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control staff has already approved the plans, but state law allows groups such as the Coastal Conservation League and the wildlife federation to ask the DHEC board to re-visit the staff’s work.

“What we’re really wanting to happen is for DHEC to require the conditions that everyone initially agreed to in the first place,” said Amy Armstrong, executive director of The South Carolina Environmental Law Project who submitted the request on behalf of the groups. “We’re asking the DHEC board to review their staff’s decision and tell staff that they need to include these protective measures for wildlife, measures that the resources agencies say are needed to protect the wildlife.”

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 a 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.

Liz Russell, who lives off S.C. 90, can’t understand why state and county officials and those wanting to preserve the area can’t meet in the middle with a plan.

“In all this period of time have none of these people sat down in one room, presented both sides as to what each one’s objection is and try to hammer out some kind of agreement?” Russell said. “Everyone is not going to get exactly what they want. But can’t we come to some kind of negotiated settlement of this issue so both sides get a little bit of what they want? To me, that just sounds like a logical way to do it.”

A notable local wildlife protection agency that is not part of the Coastal Conservation League’s objection is The Sierra Club of Horry and Georgetown counties. It’s chairman is Bo Ives, who recently spent years as the Carolina Forest Civic Association’s president. So the issue gets personal with Ives — balancing the protection of the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve and lobbying for the paving of International Drive.

“It’s not easy,” Ives said of his position. “It may look like it’s a contradictory position to people on the outside, but for me it was just continued growth. Community activist on several levels.”

He said the conservation groups in the area generally do work together quite closely, but on International Drive, the Sierra Club has not joined the effort.

“We have been concerned about the plight of the bear,” Ives said. “We’ve stayed on top of it and so has [Horry Chapter of] Wild Life Action. We want to protect the bear, but the bear tunnels are a bad idea. For example, the paths that the tunnels take you to: One takes you directly to the Solid Waste Authority and the second takes you to an area that’s owned by a family in Virginia that have hunt club on their property.

“The proper place to put a crossing would have been to the green way, which was the pattern of migration of the bear to find food. However, since Carolina Forest has been developed now that there are over 30,000 residents here, they haven’t ventured in this direction in 10 years.”

Armstrong, of the environmental law project, said conservationist would rely on the recommendation of the Department of Natural Resources and the state’s Fish and Wildlife department to decide where the crossings fit best.

“If it makes sense to put them somewhere else because that’s where we know they’re going to use them, then of course we would be in support of that,” Armstrong said. “We’re in the process of gathering more information from different agencies. Some of the information involved what’s the mortality rate on Highway 90, 22, 31, 501. How many bears are actually hit and killed on each of those roads?”

Ives moved to Carolina Forest because of his love for nature and even lives on a Carolina Bay. Ives said he also wants to make sure a serious effort is put into clearing the sides of International Drive to not obstruct the view of the bears or drivers.

“I’m still concerned about giving the bear a fighting chance. Let them see the approaching traffic,” Ives said. “I’d like to see a wide swatch next to International Drive that’s mowed frequently so they can see the oncoming traffic and turn around. They’re smart animals.”

Ives said the state was doing a population study on how many bear lived in Lewis Ocean Bay Preserve, until a wildfire struck in 2009. Nearly 8,000 acres of the 9,383-acre preserve was impacted, and so was the bear population. Before the fire, there were about nine bear dying annually on S.C. 90, and the majority of the bears did not come back to the area after the fire.

“Given the population in Carolina Forest, I don’t think the pattern of migration is useful any longer,” Ives said. “We haven’t seen them in my area. I live on a Carolina bay that’s attached to the preserve, it’s attached to the green way. We haven’t seen a bear in 10 years.”

Armstrong said those who work at the preserve see the bears regularly.

“I don’t think that there’s any real dispute that the bears use that whole area,” Armstrong said. “Not only in Lewis Ocean Bay, but also on the other side of International Drive and beyond, and really up to the development.

“We know that that’s a migration corridor, we know that bears cross that area. The folks that work at Lewis Ocean Bay say that they see them all the time... We just need to put them somewhere. And really four-laning that road and having it so big... it seems excessive to have a four-lane road when you have a lot of these other thoroughfares in and out of the area.”

The delays have set off local politicians, as well.

State Rep. Mike Ryhal, R-Carolina Forest, said he gets upset with the out-of-area protestors.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Ryhal said. “People from outside our county is who we’re dealing with here and we need to let them know we don’t want them here. This is our money. We’re going to raise $520-plus million [for RIDE III]. How much of that do you want to give to the environmental groups? Zero.”

Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught grew up along S.C. 90, where International Drive will intersect, and is quick to explain his frustration with out-of-area environmental groups impacting local growth.

“It’ll just relieve so much pressure on this whole area, and I have to be responsive to that whether my uncle’s name is on the road or not,” Vaught said. “I wish people would recognize that these are people from Georgetown and from Charleston and they are raising hell in Horry County.”

Armstrong said the organizations involved have members throughout the state, including Horry County.

“South Carolina Wild Life Federation is a statewide organization and they have dues-paying members that live in Horry County that expect the Wild Life Federation to stand up and protect the wildlife when it’s threatened,” Armstrong said. “While the headquarters of the Wild Life Federation are based in Columbia, they have to be located somewhere, they operate throughout the state.”

Impacting hearts, homes

For those who were at the Horry County Council meeting when the late General James B. Vaught loudly proclaimed “Get it done,” as he referred to the delays in paving International Drive, the echoing of his voice could still be heard. For Councilman Vaught, his nephew who has since been elected a councilman, it’s a long-awaited improvement.

“Those people, since I’m originally from out in that direction, that’s the thing they call me about,” Vaught said. “They know my connection to that community, so they call me.”

Liz Russell bought her house off S.C. 90 eight years ago with the understanding that International Drive would have been built by now.

“That is part of what was explained to us,” Russell said. “Some of us expressed a little hesitance because we are out a little bit far from things. All of the Realtors, at least the ones I dealt with, said International Drive is right down here and there’s talk that they’re going to pave the rest of this and we could shoot right into the Carolina Forest area.”

Russell’s commute to her part-time job near Coastal Grand mall would be trimmed significantly if the road was paved.

“During tourist season, I don’t go down [U.S. 501],” Russell said. “I go down [S.C.] 90 to [S.C.] 22 to [S.C.] 31 to Grissom to get home. That takes me 40 to 45 minutes. Where, if I could go down International Drive, you’re talking 15, 20 minutes.

“I think the time has come for this.”

Realtor Dan Ferworn said he and his wife Linda have lived in the Waterford Plantation since 1998, and the two have sold real estate primarily in Carolina Forest for the last 10 years.

“It has a great impact in the real estate market from the standpoint that we have sold to several communities down Highway 90,” Ferworn said. “Back in 2011, the builders who were out there showing model homes kept telling the people that were buying that International Drive was going to be completed by 2013. 2013 came and gone and there’s a lot of frustrated people who live out in that area, and luckily, from my standpoint, I never promised anybody anything... Living here for 17 years and know how Horry County government and everything else works, you don’t talk about something unless you see it.”

“It is impacting real estate sales all up and down that area in Conway.”

Council Chairman Lazarus was optimistic in early July about the International Drive project before the objection by the league, saying the public would see “significant progress” on the paving. He said he hopes the work that will be done by the planned 2016 referendum will show the county is persistent in getting the road done.

“Let the process take its place,” Lazarus said. “If the [Department of Health and Environmental Control] board sees it necessary and feels it’s OK and they support their staff’s recommendation and sends it back to the Corps of Engineers, leave it alone and let us go get our permits and let us build a road that has been vetted since 2010. It didn’t happen just yesterday. Everybody has known about this road since 2010, and it’s been going on for a long, long time.”

vanSickler said the county may have trouble garnering the support in the Carolina Forest area for RIDE III if there is little to no progress on International Drive.

“Yes, we want it started, and yes, we want it done,” vanSickler said. “And yes that could be a consideration on how the public might vote on RIDE III. I can’t guarantee that one way or the other.”

Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or on Twitter @TSN_JRodriguez.

The road to International Drive

Nov. 7, 2006 | Voters approve RIDE II program, which includes the paving of 5.6 miles of International Drive

November 2009 | Design, rights of way acquisition and permitting begins

July 2010 | Original contract between S.C. Department of Natural Resources and Horry County agreed to, which included three bear crossings and fencing along International Drive

Late 2010 | Environmental groups file comments objecting to construction of the southern extension of S.C. 31 and the widening of S.C. 707, delaying those projects and others scheduled to be done after those two, which included International Drive, by two years

2012 | Construction was set to begin on the paving. Delayed because other higher priority projects saw delays

2013 | Original plans show the repaving of International Drive was set to be completed

October 2013 | Modification to Horry County/DNR agreement that allowed for a market-value purchase of the right-of-way easement from DNR included the removal of the animal crossings

November 2013 | Original environmental permit application submitted

May 2014 | First round of comments required the installation of additional monitoring wells for off-site mitigation

Late 2014 | Response to first round of comments

February 2015 | Second response to follow-up comments submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers

March 2015 | Conway office of the Corps of Engineers indicated they have received all information in the county’s latest response to the February round of comments

July 2015 | Corps of Engineers prepared to issue decision on whether the county would receive its permits to construct International Drive

July 10, 2015 | Request for Final Review filed by The South Carolina Environmental Law Project on behalf of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, delaying the project longer

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