Industry too close to home?

Between Interstate 26 and the Ashley River, there’s a swath of land around Baker Hospital Boulevard that’s suffered from a long history of industrial pollution, where the vacant properties are only fit for industrial use, according to developers.

On that same swath of land around Baker Hospital Boulevard, on properties right next to the vacant ones, 108 families live in apartments with river views, near a nursing home with 160 patients, not far from a mental heath facility with live-in clients.

The fact that these conditions co-exist in the same place has raised pressing questions about pollution and redevelopment at the southern tip of North Charleston.

“I don’t understand how our area is OK to live on, but that land is not OK for regular businesses,” said Lana Wilder, manager of Osprey Place apartments, at a recent North Charleston meeting.

A development group wants the vacant land adjacent to the apartment complex reclassified for “heavy industrial” use, whereas current zoning and city land use plans call for retail-type businesses and homes.

“It’s my understanding that the property is remediated to an industrial level, with restrictions on it,” said Robert Clement, representing the landowner Ashley II of Charleston LLC. “Exxon remediated it to a level, and it does not pose a health threat going forward, but it can only be used for industrial purposes.”

Using the land only for industrial businesses would reduce the scope of any additional environmental cleanup work that might be needed from developers, but representatives of the apartments, the nursing home, and the mental health facility don’t want industrial neighbors and are concerned about the environmental problems.

“I operate a 160-bed nursing home,” said LeeAnne Newton, administrator of Riverside Health & Rehabilitation. “We want good neighbors, and we want it to remain as residential as possible.”

She said the “heavy industrial” zoning requested by the buyer, Ashley River Developer I, LLC, “sounds scary, loud and obnoxious.”

Wilder said she wouldn’t like to see heavy industry on land adjacent to the apartment complex playground.

“I hope we’re not changing the zoning to meet the buyer, instead of having the buyer meet the zoning,” she said.

Ashley River Developer I, LLC, is a partnership between MeadWestvaco, Branch Properties, and Pope and Land. The group is seeking heavy industrial zoning for the land south of Baker Hospital Boulevard.

Another LLC with MeadWestvaco’s address, Ashley River Investors, is seeking light industrial zoning for the vacant land north of Baker Hospital Boulevard, along Speissegger Drive.

All of the land was once part of an ambitious plan known as Ashley River Center, which called for cleaning up the pollution and building homes, offices, shops and hotels. Clement’s company, along with Cherokee Investment Partners, a North Carolina private equity firm involved in brownfield redevelopment, were leading that plan until it faded away during the housing market meltdown and the firms parted company.

In addition to the nursing home, apartment complex, and mental health facility, the new plan to use the vacant property for heavy industry is opposed by the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities.

“We are asking that this request is denied,” said Omar Muhammad, speaking for LAMC at the City Council hearing.

While the industrial pollution is well documented now, Baker Hospital (later Roper North) was built on the property in 1981, and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce used the building for its offices until 2010, when the building was demolished.

The land is also part of several different environmental clean-up projects overseen during various stages by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Contaminants included arsenic and lead in the soil, from a former phosphate processing facility, and pollution from a chemical plant site once owned by ExxonMobil Corp., which paid for the cleanup.

Van Keisler, DHEC section manager for the Federal Remediation Program, said a key difference is that portions of the Superfund site known as VCC Wando were cleaned up to meet residential standards. That’s where the apartments and nursing home sit today.

“In the department’s view, it’s clean enough for people to live on in a residential scenario,” Keisler said. “We deem those as safe to live in and play in and so forth.”

The other properties, which are the undeveloped land, include parts of the VCC Wando site and another known as the Swift Agri-Chem site. In addition, there was a former county landfill there, resulting in methane gas, and a vacant industrial business called Sunbelt Rentals that left behind “possible containers/drums of waste antifreeze, used paint, and hydraulic oil, (and) an above-ground oil-water separator” according to a DHEC description.

“That property would come with restrictions on it saying it couldn’t be for residential use,” Keisler said. “The developers are the ones who have come in and asked to clean up to an industrial standard.”

Two agreements are pending with DHEC, just awaiting signatures, to allow the developers to proceed with an industrial-standard cleanup. No objections were received during a public comment period, according to DHEC Brownfields Program Project Manager Angela Gorman.

Those agreements say the developer may lease the land for use as a recycling center. Clement said that’s no longer the plan.

Going forward, the developers plan to give a presentation about the environmental conditions at a North Charleston City Council committee meeting, scheduled at 5 p.m. Thursday at City Hall. The council will be considering the heavy industrial zoning request for the properties south of Baker Hospital Boulevard at that meeting.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.