Charleston County backtracking on I-526 compensation?

Frances Reynolds was looking for a peaceful place for retirement when she moved to The Savannah condominiums in West Ashley in 2010. She lives less than 1,000 feet from where the Interstate 526 extension will go, and doubts she will be able to sell her home. Buy this photo

Frances Reynolds isn’t surprised Charleston County appears to be backtracking on a plan to pay her and others who live near the path of Interstate 526.

She owns the end unit in a row of homes in The Savannah condominiums in West Ashley. The building next to hers is slated for demolition when construction begins on the highway from West Ashley across Johns and James islands.

County Council last month narrowly approved moving forward with the controversial road project. Councilwoman Anna Johnson was swayed to cast one of the deciding votes in part because of an amendment she proposed that required the county to put forth “a good faith effort” to compensate people who live within 1,000 feet of the road for the impact it would have on their property. But county officials haven’t come up with an estimate on how much such compensation would cost. They have no idea where the money would come from, and are uncertain whether the plan can be carried out.

Reynolds said her quality of life will be ruined by noise, lights and vehicle fumes when the interstate is built next to her home. She moved from Georgetown to Charleston to be close to her daughter and grandchild. Her condominium along a greenway trail was supposed to be her peaceful retirement home.

And she doubts she can sell it. The Federal Housing Administration won’t back mortgages on condominiums within 1,000 feet of a highway, a restriction that would knock out many potential buyers, she said.

And she doesn’t think the county will compensate her for her loss. She didn’t believe when County Council voted to build the road at a Dec. 13 meeting that she ever would receive a dime. “They just said that to appease everybody at the meeting,” Reynolds said. “I really didn’t think the money was going to come.”

Johnson said she still stands behind the amendment. “It is important that my recommendations be carried out as voted on by council members, and our staff is expected to provide the result of their study to council at the appropriate time,” she said.

County Administrator Kurt Taylor said staffers eventually would have to come back to council with thoughts on the compensation plan. But, he said, “this is very complex, and we haven’t figured out if or how it can be done.” The proposal falls outside the regular boundaries of how property for road projects is acquired, he said. “How we would accomplish that outside regular boundaries remains to be seen.”

Steve Thigpen, the county’s director of transportation development, said the regular rules for acquiring property and compensating owners through eminent domain apply only when the proposed project would actually touch someone’s property.

In the case of I-526, project money from the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank could be used to cover the cost of property through which the road would pass. But it can’t be used to pay people who would live near it for a drop in property value, he said.

Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League and an opponent of I-526, said the issue of compensating people in the path of I-526 isn’t complicated. County Council voted to do it, he said. “A good faith effort” should mean the county would have to decide how much to compensate people, not whether to compensate them, he said.

And Councilman Dickie Schweers, who voted against the completion of I-526, said he didn’t believe some council members who voted to complete I-526 were committed to seeing that people who lived within 1,000 feet of it were compensated, “I never thought it had any oomph or credibility behind it in the first place,” he said of the amendment. He thinks some council members went along with the weakly worded amendment about a compensation plan simply to get the road approved. “A year from now, it will be forgotten.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.

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