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FEATURE ‌ Building a Better Road

Or, how the Mark Clark railroaded my rural lifestyle

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Johns Island farmer Thomas Legare plans to fight 526 'til the cows come home
  • Johns Island farmer Thomas Legare plans to fight 526 'til the cows come home

The planned $420 million expansion of the Mark Clark Expressway, bridging the James Island connector with U.S. 526, is either the destruction of what's been a remote respite for rural farmers for centuries or the herald of improved traffic for the throngs of new residents that will show up anyway — it just depends on whom you ask.

Charleston County, curious about the road's impact on the communities of Johns and James islands, contracted EDAW of San Francisco to determine what happens when you plop an interstate exit in the middle of a mostly rural region. The results seem to have emboldened county officials, confident they are doing the right thing, and galvanized local residents who are convinced they'll get no rest from the churn of cookie-cutter developments if the road is built.

The report really doesn't contradict itself. It's clear that interstate access will make land near the new exits very lucrative and encourage development as people find the area a convenient alternative to the long drive from Summerville or Goose Creek. That increased interest will cause property values to climb, making it difficult for some families that have long lived on rural Johns Island to keep up with taxes and brush off high-dollar offers from developers — thus endangering a valuable enclave of affordable housing.

"When you have better access, you make land more attractive for development," says Liz Drake, a senior associate with EDAW.

But there's a caveat noted several times in the 33-page report: Development is inevitable. Sure, the population of Johns Island will nearly double in the next 27 years, from 18,100 residents to as many as 35,900. But estimates prior to the Mark Clark plans already suggested a 70 percent population increase. It's that number that county officials are holding on to like a trump card.

"Growth is coming to Johns Island with or without the Mark Clark," says Keith Bustraan, chief deputy county administrator.

Unfortunately for the county, before you can get to this rosy news, you have to get through phrases like "significant impact" that never bode well for a capital project.

"While the direct physical displacement of vulnerable households as a result of the Mark Clark project is limited," the report states, suggesting only nine to 12 homes could be affected, "broader economic forces accelerated by improved highway access, such as escalating property values, are likely to affect long-time residents, lower-income residents, and heirs' property owners in the Johns Island and James Island communities."

Though Johns Island residents may be spread out, they organize quickly when a proposal, be it a sewer extension or a multimillion dollar roadway, threatens their lifestyle. The Johns Island Rural Transportation Alliance is coordinating a grassroots campaign against the road plans with help from the Coastal Conservation League, a regional environmental watchdog.

"Johns Island is in a tough spot because they're always trying to fight big developments," says Megan Desrosiers, a program manager with the league. "If the Mark Clark expansion is built, that effort is going to be ramped up by an infinite amount."

The group's website is www.no526.com and if you don't have time to write it down, don't worry. There will be street signs and bumper stickers, and organizers pledge to come to church functions and backyard barbecues to spread the word: big road equals bad road.

"If you and 10 of your neighbors get together for pizza on your back porch, I'll be happy to come and talk to you about it," says Thomas Legare, a Johns Island farm owner whose family has lived on the island since the 1700s.

The interstate's impact isn't unexpected. One only has to look at Daniel Island — once a remote area and now a residential resort, thanks to two exits off of Interstate 526.

"There's nothing anyone can say that would convince me that wouldn't happen on Johns Island if the Mark Clark is built," Desrosiers says.

Faced with the realities that growth is inevitable and that developers are already lining up for large projects on Johns Island, Legare and other residents say they support reasonable growth.

"You don't have to have everything be five units to the acre," Legare says, noting there's a market for expansive home sites that can be just as lucrative for tax coffers.

Last week, during the first public presentation of the report's findings, residents of West Ashley said they were more concerned about the positive impact on their community that wasn't included in the study's scope. Having the new road would relieve bottlenecks on busy West Ashley roads, including Savannah Highway and Sam Rittenberg Boulevard, said resident Virginia Sharpe.

"My concern is more about the transportation aspect," she says. "An extension would help get people downtown faster."

Desrosiers and Legare say they'd like to see more of a focus on improving existing roadways.

"As far as I'm concerned, the Mark Clark is finished," Legare says.

Though it largely avoids transportation impacts, the EDAW report does offer suggestions for limiting the interstate's impact on Johns and James islands, including:

* Intense community input on corridor and interchange designs

* An integrated network of park space preserving the area's scenic corridors

* A dedication from county and municipal officials that developments of a certain size will include a percentage of below-market housing for lower-income residents or provide a contribution for off-site affordable housing

* Coordinated mixed-use developments in a handful of locations that prevent sprawling commercial construction and intense residential development that could litter Johns Island's narrow highways

* Vigilance in limiting annexation and certain construction beyond agreed-upon urban growth boundaries.

Regardless of the brewing scuffle, work on the road won't begin tomorrow. Most of the money the state has approved for the road actually hasn't been found yet, with officials offering $99 million as an advance for design work and right-of-way purchases.

County and state Transportation Department officials say they're ready to begin hammering out a deal that likely would put the state in charge of the project and make the county responsible for the purse strings.

But once the deal is signed, the research and development of a lengthy environmental impact statement likely will delay construction for more than a year. There's one done, but it's about 10 years old; county and state officials say things have changed a lot since then and the process will have to include more resident input on the highway's footprint.

"You try to pick an alternative with the least amount of impact," says Tony Farrow, program manager with the Transportation Department, noting the hope is to have cars on the road by 2011.

For some Johns Island residents, the least impact would be no road at all. To one fellow resident's suggestion that Johns Island put up signs stating "Keep Out," Legare had a quick answer.

"You buy the paint and I'll get the plywood."

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