A wetland, or drainage ditch to fill?

Members of an engineering consulting firm take core samples in the wetlands near where a landfill was built over the original Gadsden Creek. State policy makers soon will decide if these wetlands may be filled in as part of WestEdge, a planned development formerly known as the Horizon Project.

As plans take shape for Charleston’s emerging WestEdge redevelopment, the biggest dispute might involve the fate of a half-mile long wetland that doglegs from Lockwood Boulevard near the Bristol Condominiums back toward Johnson Hagood Stadium.

For the developer, this wetland is essentially a trash-lined drainage ditch scoured out from a former municipal landfill. While nature has reclaimed parts of it, it regularly threatens surrounding streets and properties with flooding during high tides.

For environmentalists, however, this wetland is what remains of Gadsden Creek, one of the peninsula’s few remaining tidal creeks and one they feel could be an asset, not a liability, to WestEdge’s efforts to create a residential, commercial and research district here.

The dispute isn’t delaying progress. Three of WestEdge’s first buildings already have gone before the city’s Board of Architectural Review, and Michael Maher, the project’s CEO, said work will continue regardless of the wetland’s fate.

State regulators will hold a public hearing June 17 to get input on whether they should allow the project to replace the wetland with a drainage line sealed off from the Ashley River’s highest tides.

Their subsequent decision essentially will decide if what’s left of the creek lives or dies.

Maher’s office in the Medical University of South Carolina’s Harborview Office Tower has a decent view of the winding wetland — the one that the project hopes to fill.

“It’s not a real high tide today,” he said recently while gazing out his narrow window, “but a week ago, the tide was washing over Hagood Street.”

That sort of flooding essentially is the problem WestEdge hopes to solve with its plan. Maher said the project’s planners have been thinking about how to handle the unusual wetland since 2008.

“Today, we would never think of putting a trash dump in a salt marsh,” he said. “The ditch was kind of cut through the landfill. That’s why when you go out and look at the ditch, you see tires and everything. Yes, you see oysters and fiddler crabs, but you also see tires, bottles and concrete. There’s about every kind of waste you can imagine in there.”

WestEdge has requested a permit from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to fill about four acres of wetlands along the ditch and handle the drainage with a buried pipe — one that would have an operable tidal gate near Lockwood Boulevard to ensure the Ashley River’s high tides don’t spill back into the city.

“You can’t have a tidal wetland and control the flooding along the urbanized areas where the flooding is caused by the tides,” he said. “The tides aren’t a benefit. They are negatively impacting the community.”

Even if there’s no rain, the highest tides can force water across Hagood Street, tangling traffic and posing inconveniences for those living in the Gadsden Green housing complex or going to school at Charleston Development Academy.

“From a global perspective, this isn’t about oysters and fiddler crabs,” he said. “It’s about stormwater drainage. If there was a way nature and urbanism can coexist in this situation, we would be all for it. But you have to make a choice, and in this case, this is the right choice to make.”

Andrew Wunderley is not so sure. He is head of the relatively new nonprofit Charleston Waterkeeper, and he recently walked the creek from Hagood and Fishburne avenues down to the point where it empties into the Ashley River.

“The debate about whether it’s a creek or a ditch is a red herring,” he said. “What’s happening here is nature is reclaiming this system.

“If you go down to the ACE Basin and look at a tidal creek there, you’ll see all these kinds of vegetation.”

Wunderley said his group supports the concept of the WestEdge redevelopment but feels it could be more successful if it were to repair the creek — not replace it with a buried drainage line.

“The flooding is a big issue for the community,” he said. “A natural system doesn’t have a limit on the capacity it can handle, but a fixed system does.”

He said WestEdge’s proposed solution “is certainly a conventional one — one that has been done up and down the (Charleston) peninsula, but I think it’s outdated.”

Katie Zimmerman of the Coastal Conservation League agreed and said her group also would like to see alternatives to filling the creek.

“There’s sort of an assumption happening here that because the area was a landfill — and there are some concerns about what’s in the creek now — that they should cap it and fill it and move on,” she said. “But there should be discussion about how do we work with nature to get some flood control here rather than trying to put in a hard solution.”

That discussion will take place next month, as DHEC’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management holds a hearing on filling the wetland.

Elena Tuerk, president of the Westside Neighborhood Association, said the neighborhood is grateful for a chance to learn more about the choice and the impacts it might have.

While the neighborhood has been supportive of WestEdge, previously known as the Horizon Project, it has not taken a position on the proposed work. “I think good people are disagreeing on this issue, and there are people who just see different solutions.”

The city’s Crosstown drainage project eventually should solve the neighborhood’s long-standing flooding problems, which are at the forefront of most residents’ minds.

“We have young children walking home from school in at least knee-high water. I had to carry a little girl across the road the other day because she was terrified to cross and did not want to take off her shoes,” Tuerk said. “You have traffic backed up and trash coming up. A rain storm should not lead to utter dysfunction, and it does.”

Cyrus Buffum, a Westside resident and former Charleston Waterkeeper, said there have been good discussions with Maher and WestEdge, but not a breakthrough on a solution that works for everyone. “It’s not like we need to be in that big a hurry,” he said. “We can take the time to solve this problem.”

Maher said the larger question is what should be done to mitigate the environmental effect of the landfill created here.

He suggested environmentalists’ efforts might be focused more productively on the northern ledge of the landfill, just north of the Joe Riley Park baseball stadium, where tides are scouring away at the landfill’s edge along the marsh.

Wunderley said he likes that idea but doesn’t see this as an either-or situation.

“The historic Gadsden Creek is gone, “he said, “but we’re left with what it has transitioned into. Here’s an opportunity to get back some of its functions.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.