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The Devil’s in the details of the City’s Maybank Highway Street Grid Plan
Lee Walton

So now Mayor Riley, the Coastal Conservation League, the City’s Planning Director, and another “renowned traffic engineer” from off want to build a village-like grid network of latticed streets across Johns Island offering multiple travel options for motorists instead of a single, improved Maybank Highway. With interconnecting gathering places scattered from River Road to Main Road, “…modeled loosely like McClellanville and Rockville…” these visionaries propose a grid design of neighborhood-quality crisscrossing roads “…more in keeping with the island’s rural character.” Characteristic of most political hype emanating from RileyWorld, it sounds like a world-class vision, but, like making sausage, the process will likely be a bloody mess to implement, cost tens-of-millions more than estimated, and the results may not be palatable to those unfortunate islanders who happen to be in the way.

Let’s just step back a moment and realistically consider the village-like development plan they envision and the likely process required for its implementation.

First, what would a village-like grid network of streets, required to filter traffic through a number of parallel routes, look like? For starters, most village-scale street grid networks consist of a matrix of small blocks, each approximately one to two acres in area. A network of east-west and north-south streets with right-of-ways 60 to 80 feet wide would likely be laid-out with centerlines approximately 500 to 600 feet apart. Blocks in a linear grid orientation, as would be required for the Maybank corridor across Johns Island, would preferably be longer in the east-west direction to maximize the separation between north-south intersections. In order to encourage, if not force, motorists to equally utilize three or four parallel east-west routes, intersections would likely require alternating traffic control strategies – some with uncontrolled stop sign-priority while others would require signalization. To maximize the equal distribution of traffic on all parallel routes, forced turns would be required to eliminate preferential, higher volume routes. Speed limits of no greater than 35 MPH would also be necessary for a village-like street grid. Truck traffic, public transit, and emergency vehicles would encounter problematic conditions typical of similar village-like street grid networks.

With a village-like street grid, higher density village-like zoning and mixed-use development would naturally follow. Likewise, so would two-lane, 24-feet wide streets, curbs and gutters, sidewalks, street lights, streetscape, storm drains and all other customary public utilities it takes to build a village. Shops, public buildings, schools, churches and public space will also figure into the over-all plan. So far, Riley’s plan doesn’t sound much like a vision “…more in keeping with the island’s rural character.” To the contrary, visions of Daniel Island come to mind.

Where will all the land come from and who must be “gentrified” to pull-off this little, albeit very expensive and time consuming, magic trick? Herein lies the greatest challenge for Riley and his team of pixy dust tossing visionaries – private property rights! Not too many years ago, there was a national backlash to an infamous Connecticut Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. New London. That court upheld a lower court decision to allow the City of New London to condemn Ms. Kelo’s home and sell her land to a developer who planned to build a shopping center for the public benefit of higher tax revenues. Like most other states, our state legislature and governor quickly and properly passed legislation to prevent a public body in South Carolina from condemning property for other than public use as intended in Article V of The Bill of Rights. If one envisions a village-like grid of streets just three wide and the village blocks in between (with the existing Maybank Highway being the center street), a band of property approximately 1,000 feet wide will be necessary stretching from River Road to Main Road to pull off this little plan of smoke and mirrors. There may be many willing sellers of property currently fronting Maybank, but it will only take a few holdouts to throw an expensive legal monkey wrench into best of plans envisioned by Riley and his band of merry experts from off. The City Administration will not be able to condemn land from unwilling owners and then sell it to developers or any other private sector interest in order to make their vision a reality. Notwithstanding the legal costs of condemnation, even buying land from willing sellers valued at its highest and best use will require hundreds-of-millions of dollars. Given the anti-city mindset of most Johns Islanders, it will take more than a village to pull off this latest of Riley’s world-class dreams.

Lastly, there’s the traffic numbers to realistically consider. Currently Maybank Highway handles approximately 14,000 vehicles per day. With the proposed completion of I-526, by 2030 this volume is projected to be approximately 40,000 vehicles per day. Doing the math for three proposed parallel roadways in Riley’s plan, that’s a little over 13,000 vehicles each or close to the volume on Maybank today. If these traffic projections are reasonably accurate, Johns Island’s new Rileyville is going to have some very congested and dangerous streets for all those future pedestrians and cyclist to cross.

Tragically, the unique rural culture and irreplaceable quality of life of another priceless sea island is about to get the “James Island treatment” from the City of Charleston.

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