Are good intentions paving way to Kiawah?

Traffic from James Island slows every afternoon at rush hour as it comes off the four-lane Paul Gelegotis Bridge over the Stono River onto the two-lane Maybank Highway on Johns Island. (File/Staff)

Several Kiawah Island groups are organizing to improve roads and schools on Johns Island — and they may hire former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell as a consultant to help.

But their plan has raised concerns among some Johns Islanders who are afraid that residents of the gated Kiawah community will attempt to use their money and influence to build roads that promote development and will ruin their island’s character.

Kiawah Mayor Charlie Lipuma made a presentation at Town Council’s Jan. 18 retreat about what is being called the Low Country Advocacy group. According to a document in the retreat packet:

Better roads on Johns Island would help people who live on that island, as well as residents of Kiawah, Seabrook and Wadmalaw islands, many of whom often drive across Johns Island.

They also would help employees who have to drive across Johns Island to get to jobs on Kiawah and Seabrook.

Better schools are needed because local employers have difficulty attracting employees with children because of the quality of the schools.

The group would be comprised of the town of Kiawah Island, the Kiawah Island Community Association, the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, Kiawah Partners, and each of those groups would contribute $50,000, for a total of $200,000 to launch the effort. The Seabrook Island property owners association also may join.

Harrell is interested in consulting with the effort.

Harrell did not respond this week to messages left at his office.

“It might take weeks or months for this to happen,” Lipuma said. “The town is open to all good initiatives.”

Lipuma also said Jimmy Bailey, the community association’s chief operations officer, was leading the effort.

Bailey said someone connected to his group has approached Harrell, but there currently is no arrangement in place for the former lawmaker to work on the project.

Harrell certainly knows a lot about roads and funding issues in the state, Bailey said. He not only served as the former Speaker of the House, but his father, the late Bob Harrell, served as a former state highway commissioner and pushed to widen the Betsy Kerrison Parkway on Johns Island from two to four lanes in time for the 1991 Ryder Cup on Kiawah’s Ocean Course.

Bobby Harrell served as House speaker from 2005 until 2014, when he pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor campaign finance violations. Prosecutors said he improperly used campaign donations to pay for flights on his private plane.

The once-powerful politician was sentenced to three years of probation and had to resign the seat he’d held for more than two decades. He has been told to pay the state $113,475, which includes the balance of his campaign account and a $30,000 fine.

Bailey said the Low Country Advocacy group’s plan is in its infancy. Only two meetings have been held so far and a third one hasn’t been scheduled. If the group holds another meeting, it must decide what kind of entity it will create and the scope of the work it will do.

The idea, he said, was prompted by severe flooding in the fall on Main Road, which closed off one of only two ways to enter or leave Johns Island and caused gridlock for several days.

“We were paralyzed,” he said. “There was a sense of enough is enough. ... We have to just start talking about roads and doing something about it.”

Bailey said most Kiawah and Seabrook residents support the completion of Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands and the construction of the “Sea Island Greenway,” an elevated, limited-access road that would run down the center of Johns Island to near the gates of Kiawah and Seabrook. But those are long-term projects, and the Low Country Advocacy group isn’t going to address them. Instead it will focus on more modest ways to improve existing roads on Johns Island.

Many Johns Islanders have opposed the larger projects and have remained wary of any effort by the Kiawah groups to make changes on their island.

In 2011, the same Kiawah groups hired local businessman Maurice Washington, a former Charleston councilman, to promote the “Greenway” road, which had been proposed as a possible toll road.

Washington and an association official described his job as community outreach, working to influence Johns Island residents who oppose the road.

Johns Island resident Rich Thomas said he is angry and frustrated by Kiawah’s latest proposal.

“The last time they hired someone to try to get their ‘Golfway,’ they also insulted a great many residents,” he said.

He also said “it is incredibly ironic and insulting to the dedicated school teachers and people of Johns Island that the town of Kiawah Island officials feel it necessary to pay an admitted criminal $200,000 to tell us how bad we are and how we need to improve.”

Johns Island, he said, is not Kiawah’s doormat and Kiawah officials and residents don’t know what’s best for Johns Island residents, many of whom have lived on the island for generations.

Kiawah resident and former town councilwoman Fran Wermuth, who for years has been critical of some of the town’s attitudes and actions on Johns Island, said she also has reservations about the plan.

She said it sounds like Harrell would act like a lobbyist, working to get what the Kiawah groups want.

“I think this is more about roads than schools. I wish that weren’t the case, but I think that’s the case,” she said. “They’re talking about doing something about roads and schools on Johns Island but they haven’t mentioned it to anyone on Johns Island.”

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.