Longer parkway may form gateway Four-lane would cross Long Savannah project

Wade Spees/StaffA traffic circle is taking shape where the Glenn McConnell Parkway (at left) and Bees Ferry Road now meet. Long Savannah is planned for the wooded area at upper right where the parkway will be extended along what is now a utility line right-of-way (diagonal through upper right). Charleston County’s landfill is visible at upper left.

When Charleston County’s largest subdivision was laid out nearly a decade ago, during the pre-recession years, the 6,000-home Long Savannah development was supposed to mark the end of suburban growth in West Ashley.

Now, as the development moves toward construction under new ownership, it’s clear that rather than marking the end of the suburbs, Long Savannah could become a gateway to ongoing development planned in Dorchester County.

The distinction hinges upon a proposal to extend the Glenn McConnell Parkway from Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley to Interstate 26 near Ridgeville. If that plan is realized, the four-lane road would run through Long Savannah, a site that is currently about 1,500 acres of undeveloped land behind the Grand Oaks and Village Green subdivisions.

Long Savannah developers Taylor Bush and Preston Hipp have agreed to pay for a short, two-lane extension of the parkway from Bees Ferry Circle to their property, to serve as a primary access road.

“As far as the Long Savannah project goes, we don’t need it to go any farther,” Hipp said. “It’s neither here nor there to us” if the parkway is later extended to Ridgeville.

It would take at least three years to design, permit and build the two-lane extension of Glenn McConnell Parkway, Bush said. The road will connect to West Ashley Circle, which Charleston County is completing at a cost of $7 million, as well as existing roads in Grand Oaks.

When the Glenn McConnell Parkway is extended to serve Long Savannah, the road will provide new connections and ways to get around for people living in adjacent subdivisions including Grand Oaks, Village Green and Shadowmoss.

“Obviously, it would help traffic from our neighborhood in terms of getting out,” said Grand Oaks resident Mark Schrade.

He’s taking a wait-and-see approach to any major road plans, such as extending the parkway to Ridgeville, after seeing other proposals stalled for years.

“It sounds kind of like another Interstate 526-type project,” Schrade said. “I’ve been here for eight years and I’ve heard them talking about 526 for eight years.”

In fact, plans to extend I-526 to Johns Island have been discussed since the 1970s.

The idea of widening and extending the Glenn McConnell Parkway through Dorchester County to Ridgeville did not come from the Long Savannah developers, but from a growing coalition of business and political interests.

“Somebody is anticipating a greater use for that road,” said Bush. “My obligation is to build a two-lane road, but we’re required to acquire enough right-of-way for a four-lane road, and design to accommodate a four-lane road.”

The proposed road would run through MeadWestvaco’s East Edisto development in Dorchester County, ending at I-26 where Volvo plans to build a manufacturing plant that will employ thousands.

“Now it’s even more important, with Volvo’s announcement ...” said Mary Graham, chief advancement officer for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. “It could provide an enormous relief valve to Interstate 26.”

The Chamber calls the proposed road extension the Outer Loop, and it’s on the organization’s list of needed infrastructure priorities. It’s also been included in Charleston County’s Comprehensive Plan for regional development, and the Charleston Area Transportation Study.

“The concept is supported by everyone,” Graham said. “It will get done if we can find the money.”

The Chamber put a partial price tag of $118 million on the plan, but there’s currently no funding.

And the road plan is not without critics. The Charleston Mercury newspaper, in an editorial, called the proposed road “the latest dagger to threaten the heart of our region.”

The Coastal Conservation League is also opposed.

“There are ways to improve mobility in each area for substantially less money, and without the negative impacts of bisecting the Ashley River Historic District,” said league Director Dana Beach.

One influential person who has changed his mind in favor of extending the road is Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. A decade ago, Riley pushed the concept of having Long Savannah serve as an end-point for suburban growth, and the Glenn McConnell Parkway was supposed to serve that development and go no farther.

The city and the county park system spent $9.3 million in greenbelt funds to buy 1,800 acres of park land around the development, and both the city and Charleston County redrew their “urban growth boundary” to follow the western edge of Long Savannah.

What’s changed in nearly a decade since then, Riley said, is that the historic plantation district along S.C. Highway 61 (Ashley River Road), and the Watson Hill tract where a large development was once planned, have been protected with conservation easements or agreements that block suburban-style development.

“With all that, we think a road — going through basically a conservation zone, with no developments off of it — it would be a scenic road that would connect eventually with the Summerville region, and would take pressure off and ease traffic along Ashley River Road,” Riley said. “For those who live in Long Savannah, Village Green, Shadowmoss, Grand Oaks, and who go north to work, and those who live in Summerville and come down to the Glenn McConnell area for work, it would provide another safe and convenient travel option.”

MeadWestvaco is required to donate land for the road, for the sections running through the East Edisto property, under its development agreement with Dorchester County, according to Ken Seeger, MeadWestvaco’s Community Development & Land Management Group president.

East Edisto is a multi-decade development plan covering more than 72,000 acres, mostly in Dorchester County. Much of the land, which was previously used for timber, will be left in a rural or lightly developed state, with densely developed villages.

Seeger said an extension of the Glenn McConnell is “nothing that East Edisto needs for 15 or 20 years.”

The road should, he said, relieve traffic on Highway 61.

The Summers Corner, Ashley Ridge and Pine Hill subdivisions are parts of the East Edisto plan, along S.C. Highway 61 west of S.C. Highway 165.

Ashley Ridge High School sits on Highway 165 surrounded mostly by green space, awaiting the homes to come.

Along Bees Ferry Road, residents are relearning about the Long Savannah development that will bring so many new neighbors. Nearly a decade ago, people packed meetings about the development plan, but after the recession hit and the original developers walked away, there were several quiet years and the plan drifted off people’s radar.

Charleston City Council recently approved an updated version of the development plan, which attracted little in the way of public comment.

Some of the key points that carried over from the original development are unusual for subdivisions in the Charleston area. For example:

The developers agreed to pay for the extension of a major public road.

They agreed to give the city land within the development property where the city will build affordable housing.

They agreed to pay the historically-black Red Top community $1 million after development begins, to compensate for the impact of using Bear Swamp Road as an access to the development.

The development agreement also requires some of the things more common to large developments in the region, such as land that will be set aside for public facilities such as schools and fire stations, and fees that will offset the cost of public improvements.

Hipp, who developed Village Green and Grand Oaks, said Long Savannah’s roads that connect to existing subdivisions will be designed to provide new travel options, but in a “diffuse” way that discourages people from using them as shortcuts between major roads such as Highway 61 and Bees Ferry Road.

The roads will offer new routes for some current residents, but the development could eventually bring 15,000 new residents and their cars, adding traffic to those same roads.

Bush said that while the city of Charleston has approved the updated development agreement, much work remains in terms of design and permitting.

“You won’t see any houses out there until at least 2017,” he said.

In the mid-2000s, Long Savannah was seen not only as a large residential subdivision, but also a commercial center that would be the city’s western anchor.

“The idea is to minimize traffic by providing shopping and retail in the heart (of the development),” Hipp said.

Plans for commercial development are less certain in the revised development plan, though up to 400,000 square feet of commercial and office space would be allowed.

“The primary goal of Long Savannah is to provide housing,” said Hipp. “Everybody loves job announcements and ribbon-cuttings, but all those people have to live somewhere.”

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.