Hurdlesmany for road: Some say region needs escape route, others fearruin of pristine refuge

ByChris Dixon

Monday,June5, 2006

Edition:FINAL, Section: LOCAL & STATE, Page B1


Georgetown— An old idea for a new highway across the Waccamaw River hasreignited debate in Horry and Georgetown counties.

Proponents say anew expressway across the river between state Highway 707 and U.S.Highway 701 will help speed hurricane evacuations from the GrandStrand's burgeoning U.S. Highway 17 corridor.

But opponents saythat the road, which would first empty onto Highway 701 andeventually run to U.S. Highway 378, will encourage development andtraffic and do little to speed evacuation.

By crossing theWaccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, the road also faces significantfederal hurdles. And with three other high-capacity roads already onthe horizon, some question whether this is the most pressing road forthe budget-conscious Department of Transportation.

The WaccamawNational Wildlife Refuge runs from Georgetown County along the Bigand Little Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers into Horry County. The refugeowns nearly 11,000 acres within a 55,000 acre planned acquisitionboundary. Another 17,129 acres are protected from development bystate and other entities.

Refuge managerMarshall Craig Sasser has been involved here since a long-runningbattle over a bridge and development project that would have linkedthe pristine 9,000 acre Sandy Island to the Grand Strand via Highway701. That battle ended in 1997 with the protection of the island andserved as the precursor to the establishment of the refuge.

Driving along therefuge's remote western boundaries, Sasser said the DOT has notannounced a preferred route for the road but significant federalissues could affect the project.

The first isSection 4-F of the Federal Highway Act. This prohibits the use of anyfunds for federal highway projects unless there are no other feasiblealternatives to building a road through a wildlife refuge orhistorically significant area.

"It wouldn't bethe kiss of death, but it would require serious litmus tests," Sassersaid.

Fish and WildlifeService division chief Rick Schultz added that because the connectorwas not approved when the refuge was established, permitting a majorhighway would be almost unprecedented.

National wildliferefuges are also protected from roads by a compatibility test."Whether it's a road or bridge or new improvement to the refuge, wehave to decide whether that project will materially interfere withthe purpose for which that refuge was established," Schultz said.

The tiny andlargely black Bucksville community is a possible spot for theconnector's western touchdown. Here, Janie Scott, 74, and neighborEsther Spain, 54, said families pre-date the Civil War and localopposition to the road and development is strong.

"It's a touchysubject, I know," Spain said. "I understand that there's a need forroads because of heavy traffic and the evacuation of the beach, butwhy do these roads always seem to damage the smallest communitieswhere people want to live in

an area wherethey can enjoy their families, homes, gardens, chickens and dogs? Letthem take another route and make a bridge over the swampy areas."

Due to concernsabout the road's impact on surrounding communities, DOT spokeswomanDebbie Harwell said the task force had suggested the idea of ano-development zone along the corridor.

More discussionsare pending. DOT corridor project manager Rob Hamzy said a decisionon a preferred route is more than a year off. "People in this areapursued and requested this road because its main purpose is hurricaneevacuation. Pawleys Island and Litchfield are developing and studieshave said that evacuation times from the south Strand could be 25hours. It will also bring people on the western side of the Waccamawcloser to jobs and Grand Strand beaches."

Hamzy said that,aside from $4.1 million secured to study the road, none of the likely$40 million funding yet exists for construction. Three otherhigh-capacity roads are in the works — U.S. Highway 521,Interstate 73 and phase three of the Carolina Bays Parkway into theMurrells Inlet area. All lack adequate funding, but Hamzy and HorryCounty Councilman Howard Barnard said the 701 connector will be partof a vital web of evacuation routes.

Barnard chairsthe citizens group The Southern Evacuation Lifeline Task Force. Hehas made two trips to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrinaand is convinced that flooding and traffic would make it impossiblefor evacuees to leave the south Grand Strand in the event of acatastrophic storm. County residents have taken the lead on thecorridor because state and federal officials have not, he said.

"I don't own landout there or have any other interest in this besides getting mypeople out when a hurricane is coming," he said. "We're one of thefastest-growing areas in the U.S. and all we do if we build theseroads is just keep up with growth."

At the CoastalConservation League's Georgetown office, area director Nancy Cavesaid she understood these arguments, but the Waccamaw NationalWildlife Refuge and its pristine wetland areas were vital not onlyfor wildlife, but draining the same stormwater that Barnard fears.

"It's ironic thatthey keep wanting to compare us with Hurricane Katrina," she said."One of the reasons the flooding was so bad was because so many ofthe wetlands there have been filled."

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