First-of-its-kind Dorchester County sound wall makes political noise
SUMMERVILLE — The concrete panels going up along Dorchester Road are maybe the most visible marker of what’s happening to the once-sleepy Oakbrook suburb: It’s becoming a city.
The five segments comprising 6,000 feet of sound wall under construction will be the first of its kind in Dorchester County.
The 8-foot-tall wall is a noise barrier to blunt the drone from traffic passing by residences. It is, in other words, the sort of thing you find along interstates in busy metro areas, not the Oakbrook area, where people moved for the environs and relative quiet. The wall will replace a fringe of live oaks and other trees.
Sound walls are becoming a political battle — incongruously because more people want one than are likely to get one. A fight under way over the walls near Summerville is likely to break out across the traffic-swarmed Lowcountry. The fund-strapped S.C. Department of Transportation just toughened the criteria to have a wall built.
The walls are expensive — the Dorchester Road panels cost $1 million — and they carry maintenance and liability costs.
DOT decides whether to erect a sound wall based on a weighted set of criteria such as decibel level, distance from the road and support for it.
The department recently denied a wall to residents along Bacons Bridge Road, which also is being widened near Dorchester Road. But DOT reversed the decision late Thursday after protests by residents, local officials and state legislators, who said the residents were treated unfairly.
“We were completely getting run over,” said Jennifer Armenti.
Residents in her neighborhood, Summerville on the Ashley along Bacons Bridge Road, originally were told they met the criteria. Project engineers had run the numbers: The subdivision qualified, said Donnie Dukes of Davis & Floyd, the engineers.
Some 90 people were at the meeting and evidently approved of the 900-foot-long wall planned: No one commented against it. But at the same time, no one spoke in favor.
DOT then denied the wall saying it didn’t have public support. Residents protested when they found out, and project organizers appealed the decision.
In the meantime, though, DOT had toughened the criteria and the neighborhood no longer qualified. The department gave local officials a choice: Resubmit under the new criteria and take your chances, or pay for the wall from local funds and take on the maintenance and liability.
“It sounds like DOT has changed the rules in the middle of the game,” Dorchester County Councilman Jay Byars said when told. Byars contacted state Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, and Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Summerville. DOT announced Thursday the resubmittal will be evaluated under the old criteria.
“We were able to convince DOT engineers of the need,” Murphy said. “The residents should not be penalized for things that were out of their control.”
The re-evaluation will “fix what was basically a wrong to this neighborhood. The residents should have that wall, and they will,” Byars said.
Department staffers didn’t respond to The Post and Courier’s query about why the criteria had been toughened to start with.
The county, meanwhile, has dodged the first bullet. If it had taken on the wall, it would also have taken on the precedent. Some residents along Dorchester Road in the Ashborough neighborhood were denied the wall, and they are seeking county help to fix that too. Dukes estimated adding that wall would cost $1 million.
Armenti led the fight in Summerville on the Ashley. She bought her house 10 years ago, even though Bacons Bridge Road was out there behind it, because the road was quieter then and she was assured a wooded buffer would remain. Now the buffer is expected to be shaved almost to her property line for the widening. “The last thing I want is a highway running through my backyard but I understand the need for growth and access. We just would like to have our peace and serenity preserved as best as possible,” she said.