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County Council, September 25

The Johns Island “pitchforks” and NEPA delays
Working up plans for the old Naval Hospital
Warwick Jones

A presentation by staff on Transportation projects took up most time in yesterday’s meetings. We’ll make no attempt to detail the projects as most if not all are known. But there were some items of interest.

All major road and other projects have to satisfy certain Federal requirements. The first and it seems the most onerous, is complying with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Act has been on the books since 1970, introduced by President Nixon. Amongst other things, it requires an environmental impact study of projects. And completion of such a study is necessary before any preparation or construction is undertaken. According to staff, it can take 8 to 10 years for approval of a project from the Environmental Protection Agency. No wonder it takes such a long time to complete projects.

Staff noted last night that the Trump Administration is not happy with the long waiting period and plans/hopes to reduce the maximum wait to 2 years for projects with a value of over $2 million. We can only hope too. A reduction would also restrain cost increases for projects. With inflation around 2% a year, cost increases are almost inevitable.

And speaking of delayed processes, what about the “pitchfork” road plan promulgated and approved some 10 or more years ago for Johns Island. Council members Schweers and Johnson were interested in the present status and wondered why more has not been done. Planning for the Northern leg is underway but what about the Southern?

A recapitulation. When first considered by the County, approximately $30 million was budgeted for the pitchfork plan. Half of the funds were to come from the first half- cent sales tax and the balance from a Federal grant. As the story goes, the City of Charleston was unhappy about the route of the Southern leg and withdrew its support. Rather than lose the $15 million federal grant, the County reallocated the money, much if not all going to projects on James Island.

Problems of right of way were encountered for both legs of the pitchfork but it seems those for Northern fork have been solved and with funding in place, the project is expected to move ahead. But the future of the Southern leg is bleak. There is no funding in place. And besides, environmental issues remain.

Council members Johnson and Summey were adamant on the need to restore funding for the Southern leg and the issue is likely to be on the agenda for the next Finance Committee meeting. But even if they succeed in restoring funding, it may be many years, and perhaps never before Johns Islanders see completion. And we will bet if the Southern leg is built, it will cost much more than $15 million.

For the record, the majority of the funding for the Transportation projects comes for the two half-cent sales taxes. The first will have a life of 25 years, or less if the $1.3 billion target is met earlier. We expect that expiry will be about 2028. The second half-cent sales tax has a life of 25 years too and its target is $3.1 billion. Only two major projects remained this year receiving funds from the 2004 tax - the Folly Road and Camp road intersection now completed, and the Pitchfork projects.
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The old Naval Hospital was up for consideration again. What was the County to do?
But first a recap of what transpired over the last week. The County agreed at its last meeting to release details of the bids for the site but did not do so at that meeting. The Post and Courier reported details the following week - the top bid was $4.5 million and the other somewhat complex as it involved a commitment by the County to rent 100,000 sq. ft. in a new building and to sell only some of the land. Before consideration of the item last night, Council member Qualey asked for a vote as to whether the bids should be rejected. He thought it was appropriate if Council were to consider demolition or renovation plans. We thought his request was reasonable but nobody stepped up to second his motion.

Before Council last night was simply direction to staff for the preparation of alternative uses and their costs for the Rivers Avenue site. Council got into discussion as to the merits of various alternatives and the Chair had to remind members that Council would decide nothing without a review and vote.

In their presentation, staff noted the direction in a previous Council meeting and responded to some questions. Staff said that to provide 87,000 sq. ft., sufficient to house County staff, the cost of a new structure would be $42 million. To house staff and that of other related agencies, about 150,000 sq. ft., would cost $67 million. And to give some “expandability, 168,000 sq. ft. would cost about $74 million. These costs include about $3 million for demolition.

Council member Pryor was not happy and noted that the cost of renovating the existing building was only $64 million. Why not stick with the old building?

There were a number of reasons. The $64 million cost only related to the space that the County would occupy. The rest of the building would be vacant and unoccupied. And there was the continued cost of maintaining the unoccupied part of the building. Indeed, some Council members were unhappy that the size of a new building should exceed the space needed only for County staff for the same reason. They also asked what would happen to the other County buildings if agency staff were relocated to the Rivers Avenue property? If the County went ahead and built 168,000 sq. ft., could it be sure of tenants? And should the County even be a landlord?

And then there were the comments by Chairman Rawl and Council member Johnson. CARTA is looking for Park and Ride locations and the lot at the Naval Hospital could be ideal, the Chair suggested. Council member Johnson thought that Affordable Housing should also be considered.