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The current West Ashley endpoint of the Mark Clark Expressway can be seen in this aerial photo. The Stono River and Johns Island are in the distance.

If built, the final leg of the Mark Clark Expressway over the Stono River would fly over spectacular vistas of river and marsh.

But for people on 780 properties in and near its path, a new highway would bring road noise, pollutants known to cause health problems and uncertainty over land values.

Every new road generates winners and losers, but according to a new Post and Courier analysis, these 780 property owners have the most at stake — the Mark Clark would be in shouting distance of their front and back yards, or closer.

To better understand who is inside and outside the project's path, The Post and Courier obtained detailed map information from the Transportation Department and cross-indexed it with property ownership data. The results show that the project would affect a wide range of landowners, from people in spacious estates on Johns Island to homeowners in modest West Ashley subdivisions to users of James Island County Park.

The roster also reveals that a large number of people have bought homes and land in the impact zone during the last decade.

Further, while the epicenter of opposition to the project has been Johns Island, more West Ashley and James Island residents would see, hear and feel its effects.

Meanwhile, many key questions about intersections and other design features have yet to be answered, making it difficult for those in the impact zone to fully gauge how the highway would change their lives.

The idea is more than four decades old — build a highway belt around metropolitan Charleston with the buckle straddling downtown Charleston.

The plan generated the same emotions when it was unveiled as it does today. In 1970, for instance, 200 residents jammed the Charleston County courthouse to argue that the highway belt was desperately needed, while others dubbed it a 'monster freeway.'

Over the next three decades, the state stitched pieces of this belt together: the James Island connector; two bridges over the Wando and Cooper rivers that fueled massive developments on the Cainhoy peninsula; and another bridge over the Ashley that connects North Charleston with West Ashley.

But one major piece was left: a roughly 9-mile leg to Johns Island with two bridges over the Stono River. This piece is expected to cost about $500 million and has been in limbo after the county rejected it, then turned it over to the State Infrastructure Bank, which in turn punted it to the state Transportation Department. It's up to the state to decide whether to proceed.

A pivotal part of many big-ticket public-works projects is the 'draft environmental impact statement.' Assembled by state and federal agencies, the impact statement is a collection of studies that attempts to document a highway's visual, noise, health and other effects. It describes different route options, and from those options, highway planners choose one.

State highway engineers settled on what is now known as Alternative G, which would require four businesses and people in 22 homes to be relocated.

But a highway's impact ripples far beyond its pavement and shoulders.

In recent years, researchers have found that people who live within 650 feet of a highway are exposed to ultra-fine particles of black carbon and unhealthy levels of nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide.

Studies have shown that people near highways have higher risks of asthma, lung problems, and possibly heart problems and lung cancer.

Highway noise also is known to generate health problems and reductions in property values for those immediately next to busy thoroughfares.

Highway noise is affected by traffic speeds, pavement types — concrete is louder than asphalt — and other factors, but road noise calculation models show that a highway similar to the current plan for the Mark Clark extension would generate sound levels similar to a clothes dryer or air conditioner.

This noise would extend 400 feet or more from the highway in some scenarios. Closer in, it would sound as loud as a vacuum cleaner.

In its analysis, The Post and Courier identified a zone of properties 500 feet on either side of the highway's proposed route.

Within this area, 374 property owners would see a highway crossing their property boundaries. An additional 406 have land and homes just outside the road's actual footprint, but within 500 feet.

Among the most affected areas, the neighborhoods in the highway's West Ashley path stand out.

Today, the Mark Clark Expressway flows across North Charleston into West Ashley, ending at Savannah Highway with a long circular on-ramp next to a bowling alley.

If completed, the Mark Clark would keep going, slicing through part of The Savannah condominium complex and into the Citadel Woods and Oakland neighborhoods. It would continue for another three-quarters of a mile until it hits the marshlands of the Stono River.

On a recent afternoon, Mildred Tisdale, 77, pointed to the woods in her backyard off East Shore Lane. 'I have two more payments on my home, and I'll have lived here for 30 years,' she said. 'They're supposed to put four lanes through my yard.'

As with more than two dozen property owners contacted for this article, Tisdale said she hasn't received any direct communication from officials about what the new highway will specifically do to her property's value, and how noise and pollution will affect her.

Like many, she said she learned about the project by going to public meetings, though those have often been emotional affairs where the focus was on showing support or opposition.

'I almost hit a woman from Folly Beach,' she said with a smile, referring to a supporter of the project.

But she left these meetings wondering: How would the highway look from her back porch? How loud would it be? Would it cut her neighborhood in two? Would any of her land be taken?

Some of that information is in the environmental impact statement.

Depending on how far away the highway ends up from her house, noise would be expected to sound like a vacuum cleaner or a lawn mower at 100 feet, according to ranges in the study's noise analysis.

From her back porch, she likely would look up at the highway.

David Kinard, a project manager for the state Transportation Department, said the highway in this area would be built on fill and low-level bridges, meaning it would likely rise at least 16 feet at some points.

Raising the highway to this level would allow enough clearance for Clayton Street and South Shore Drive to continue underneath, a design that would preserve existing traffic patterns in the area.

A 10-foot-wide bike path also would be built along the northwest side of the route, which would tie into the West Ashley Greenway. Kinard said no sound barriers are planned, and no studies have been done that would predict noise impacts from a highway at different heights above the surrounding area.

When The Post and Courier described some of this information to Tisdale and others in this neighborhood, they wondered why, given the seriousness of the impact on their lives and properties, no one from the state contacted them with specifics about their properties.

Kinard said the Army Corps of Engineers sent letters in 2010 to property owners next to the route, and that the state Transportation Department sent several mass mailings announcing the hearings.

Kinard provided a copy of the Army Corps letter to The Post and Courier. It's a form letter that tells addressees 'you have been identified as an adjacent property owner,' and includes a crude map of the Alternative G route. The letter references wetland impacts, future public hearings and ways to comment.

Several property owners interviewed for this story said they remember receiving fliers about the hearings, but none recalled receiving correspondence about how the highway would look from their properties, how loud it would be or what it would do to the values of their homes and land.

'I don't feel very well-informed about it, period,' said Tom Palmer, who lives in the Waterway South condo complex and has attended public meetings.

From West Ashley, the highway would cross a new bridge over the Stono River and curve south into the marsh between two relatively new developments, Rushland to the west and Headquarters Island to the east.

It then would meet the first of two T-shaped intersections on Johns Island. Plans call for each intersection to have an access road that takes traffic to and from the highway to River Road.

Through Johns Island, the highway and access roads would cross or be within 500 feet of 66 property owners, including Casey Baynes, who lives in a subdivision off River Road.

'I think my wife and I are numbers 94 and 96 on the NIX-526 list,' he said, referring to a group that opposes the highway.

Baynes said he grew up on James and Johns islands, once lived at Buzzard's Roost marina and sometimes helped hand-crank the old bridge open.

The highway would cut through the marsh behind his house, ruining views, harming wildlife and generating noise that would destroy the area's rural character, he said.

'We don't want it, but there are lots of people who stand to profit from it.'

Indeed,

owners of large tracts off the access roads would have quicker access to downtown and West Ashley, making those tracts more ripe for future development. Already, flags and signs announcing new homes for sale line River Road near its intersection with Maybank Highway.

Harris Teeter owns land next to the foot of one of the proposed access roads, and investors have plans for a major development around it.

The project would have a major impact on River Road, traffic projections show. If the extension is built, River Road traffic would grow to about 23,000 vehicles a day by 2035, about as many as use five-lane Sam Rittenberg Boulevard or the busiest section of two-lane Harbor View Road.

If the extension isn't built, traffic is expected to increase to 12,000 cars a day, about twice the current level.

Despite these numbers with or without the Mark Clark, state engineers have said River Road won't need to be widened to four lanes.

On James Island, 339 properties would be in or close to the project's path, including James Island County Park.

Of these landowners, 78 percent bought properties in the last decade. Many are purchasers of condos in the Regatta, a complex off Central Park Road, and Ellis Landing, a development of large homes amid heirs' property.

Jerry and Sue Smoak are in the zone. They live in a house along Ellis Creek off the whimsically named Up on the Hill Road. It's a world away from the commercial clutter on Folly Road.

Ellis Creek meanders past their house, which is shaded by old oaks. Off their dock, dolphins sometimes school fish onto the bank.

'A little piece of heaven,' Jerry said.

He and his wife also are opposed to the highway, and scratch their heads about the department's plans for the area.

Current plans call for traffic to flow over Folly Road into the area where they live. Up on the Hill Road would be blocked by the new highway.

In the absence of any designs, and with no timetable for making a decision, the Smoaks and others wonder how the highway will affect the character of this hidden corner of James Island.

James Washington, 68, lives nearby off Riley Road, a country road that dead-ends at Ellis Creek. He said he was born in the house next door and heard stories about how the tides in the area got so high, family members had to drill holes in the floor so the water would run out.

Current plans call for a new, ground-level intersection as the highway crosses Riley Road. Stop signs would be placed on Riley Road, but none on the expressway. 'There's going to be a bunch of traffic,' he said, referring to Riley Road. 'It doesn't make much sense.'

Of the more than 25 residents in the impact zone interviewed for this article, none said they want the project built, though a handful said they hope a decision is made soon, thumbs up or down; the uncertainty over the project is preventing some property owners from moving on with their lives, said Jared Guichard, a resident in The Savannah condominium complex.

Guichard's building would be demolished if the roadway is built, and he said neighbors can't get refinancing or find good mortgage refinancing deals because of the project's status. 'We want to know which way they're going,' he said.

'It's going to clobber everyone's property values,' said Dave Dolber, a resident of Waterway South, a condo complex on the Stono River.

'The consensus is that this is something the rich kids want so they can get from the airport to Kiawah quicker,' he said, adding that he pilots corporate jets.

Those outside its path also have a stake in what happens. The project has many cheerleaders, including Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who has said a 'silent majority' supports it.

Motorists throughout the region would have a beautiful ride through wooded areas and the Stono River's marsh and tidal currents. It would save some people time: With the extension, motorists should be able to shave 36 seconds off an 'average' regional trip. (An example would be a motorist traveling from West Ashley to James Island, or James Island to Johns Island.)

Those traveling to and from Johns Island should save about 4 minutes and 36 seconds, according to the state's traffic projections.

But for those in the path, the project remains a line on a map, one that could be moved one way or another, or removed altogether, an ongoing source of uncertainty about a decision that will be made by lawmakers and engineers who live elsewhere.

Gill Guerry contributed research to this report. Reach Tony Bartelme at 937-5554.

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