Neighbors watch warily as rail yard permit proceeds

Penny Middleton knows she is getting a new neighbor — a sprawling $280 million rail yard where cranes will shuffle containers between trains serving nearby containers ships — but she’s unsure what, if any, benefits it might bring.

“I don’t mind economic development, but you need to bring something to the people who are here,” she said recently outside her one-story home on Success Street. “It seems they always get the short end of the stick.”

Middleton is among many residents of North Charleston’s Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood who have been having conversations with Palmetto Railways Inc., a branch of the state Department of Commerce and the developer of the rail yard just next door.

These talks have covered how the rail yard will work, what negative effects might be unavoidable for the neighbors and what, if anything, can be done to lessen those effects. The conversation will continue Tuesday evening, as the Army Corps of Engineers holds an open house and public hearing regarding a crucial permit.

“I will go and see if anything has changed,” Middleton said. “I’m just hoping and praying things turn out OK.”

Bill Stanfield lives just down Success Street from Middleton. As director of Metanoia, a nonprofit working to revitalize the neighborhood, Stanfield said he appreciates much of what Palmetto Railways has done to consider residents’ concerns about noise, light, diesel emissions and congestion.

He recently visited North Baltimore, Ohio, with Palmetto Railway officials to see a similar intermodal yard that opened about five years ago.

Jeff McWhorter, president and CEO of Palmetto Railways, has said one of the state’s main goals is to minimize and mitigate the impacts on nearby neighborhoods.

It plans to use quieter, cleaner electric cranes, automated gate systems that will reduce truck congestion and high mast lights that will point downward to keep light from spilling off the site. And it plans to connect the neighborhood with Riverfront Park on a new overpass at Cosgrove Avenue that will include a bike and pedestrian path.

But some solutions have created other issues, as well.

For instance, instead of simply building a concrete wall to block noise and views, Palmetto plans to build an earthen berm and a vegetated buffer where the yard rubs up against the neighborhood.

But that decision will necessitate the taking of slightly more than 100 homes, 90 percent of which are rented out. While renters will have their moving expenses paid and can receive some other assistance for up to 42 months, Stanfield said there’s no plan to replace the loss of the relatively affordable units.

“We’re kind of in a region right now that has an affordable housing crisis,” Stanfield said.

McWhorter said Palmetto Railways is looking for opportunities to relocate some of these homes to vacant lots — owned either by private owners or Metanoia within the community.

Mayor Keith Summey said he also doesn’t like to see the loss of affordable housing and said it would be ideal if the state offered replacements or an incentive program to developers to create more.

Penny Middleton’s sister, Deborah Middleton of Mount Pleasant, still owns three homes on Success Street and expects Palmetto Railways will buy and raze two of them to create a berm between the rail yard and the neighborhood.

“I’m waiting to see what (real estate offers) they come up with,” she said, adding that she has planned for rental income from these units to add to her retirement income. “We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. The people across the street from me already sold.”

When Stanfield recently walked a few blocks from his home to show how demolition work has begun on Sterett Hall, a gym, fitness center and community building next to the neighborhood.

There is no current plan to replace it.

North Charleston City Councilman Michael Brown, who also went on the trip to Ohio, said one of his greatest concerns is the loss of Sterett Hall.

“On the southern end, there’s very little when you start to speak about communities and that’s what I think can definitely be improved on, providing facilities for them,” he said.

McWhorter said the 2012 settlement between the Department of Commerce, Palmetto Railways and North Charleston gave the city $8 million to lessen the project’s impacts, including the loss of Sterett Hall.

But Summey said he would like to see the state either construct or fund construction of a replacement for Sterett.

Stanfield said the neighborhood appears to be caught in the middle, with both the city and Palmetto Railways feeling the other is responsible for replacing Sterett. He said that’s one thing he would like the Army Corps to resolve before issuing a permit.

“They (the corps) have no way to keep the city accountable,” he said. “They do have a way to keep Palmetto Railways accountable.”

The railway’s impact on the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood or even the surrounding area’s traffic flow isn’t the only issue expected to be aired Tuesday.

Lowcountry preservationists say Palmetto Railways and the state need to do more to offset the negative impacts the new rail line will have on the Old Hospital District, one of three national historic districts created on the former base.

The current plan shows the rail line will cut about 1,400 feet through the district and demolish about five historic buildings. Others, such as the iconic naval hospital, will be just next to the line, reducing the appeal to those who might renovate it.

Don Campagna, a Navy vet and member of the Naval Order of the United States, has led the fight to protect the district’s history as the rail yard permit gets considered.

He said he would like to see an option to avoid running a new rail line there. “There does exist an option that would spare the district,” he said.

However, if the line cuts through the district, then other preservationists have said the state much do significant work to mitigate that harm.

Because the properties are on the National Register of Historic Places, the Army Corps of Engineers must consider the rail line’s effect on their historic value as part of its permitting process.

While the major public hearing will be held on the rail yard Tuesday, the public has until July 9 to comment on the plan.

Depending on the outcome of the permitting, construction on the intermodal center could finish in 2018, with operations beginning the following year.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre. Reach Brenda Rindge at 843-937-5713.