As construction begins on a $500 million automotive plant that will bring new jobs — and a new way of life — to a sleepy part of Berkeley County, neighbors are keeping a watchful eye.
Last year, Volvo Cars North America announced plans for its first U.S. plant, which also would bring other satellite industries to what is a sparsely populated area east of Interstate 26.
As the Lowcountry’s metro area continues to expand beyond Summerville, nearby rural residents have realized the area is becoming ripe for development.
Many, however, also hope to preserve their rural lifestyle.
“I think the surrounding communities really are happy to work with the county and with (the state Department of) Commerce,” said Lebanon resident Lynn Hoover, who has been on the county planning commission for 18 years.
“Everybody wants to have good-paying jobs. Nobody is against that,” she said. “We are just trying to come up with ways to be able to preserve the rural character of the existing communities.”
Berkeley County Supervisor Bill Peagler recently issued a policy directive aimed at ensuring growth in the county is effectively managed.
“Berkeley County will continue to push for industrial and commercial growth so our residents are able to live, work, raise a family and play here,” he said, but added, “We want to make sure that our residents can continue to enjoy the beauty of rural Berkeley County.”
Volvo will present a major test of whether the county can pull that off.
The Swedish automaker plans to employ up to 4,000 people and build 100,000 compact sedans a year at its first U.S. plant on the 6,900-acre site known as Camp Hall, nestled between the communities of Pringletown and Lebanon. The former timber site is owned by Berkeley County and Santee Cooper.
The first cars will roll off the lines in 2018. Nearby, new roads are being built while others are being widened. A new interchange from Interstate 26 is underway at mile marker 197, and another is being planned just a mile farther to the west to help serve the car plant.
Construction traffic already is affecting some residents, as heavy trucks hauling logs and dirt speed along narrow two-lane roads lined with farms.
“We are a rural farming community, and we do want to maintain our way of life,” Lebanon Road resident Shanna Saulisbury told the planning commission last fall.
In 2012, residents met with county officials, area residents and representatives from MeadWestvaco (now WestRock), former owners of Camp Hall property, to develop a land-use agreement.
“There was no Volvo in sight then,” Hoover said. “It was just about trying to have the property ready. With a little bit of planning and a little bit of give and take, we can still have the rural communities and have industrial development.”
“Nobody got everything they wanted,” she said of that 2012 effort, “but we came up with an agreement that all sides could live with.”
Since then, they’ve watched as the land was rezoned from agricultural status to planned development, and voiced their concerns about roads to service the plant.
“It’s really important to keep the trust of the surrounding communities,” Hoover said. “Everybody is watching to see if their trust is betrayed or if the agreement proves to be trustworthy.”
Santee Cooper wants to work with the neighbors as it makes plans for the 3,900 acres just west of the Volvo site, Senior Vice President Pamela Williams said.
About 1,400 of those acres could be used for an industrial park.
“It’s going to be a great neighbor, not just to Volvo but to the communities of Pringletown and Lebanon,” said Santee Cooper Vice President of Administration Sam Bennett.
In February, he showed residents a plan, developed with input from the Audubon Society, the Lowcountry Land Trust and other environmental groups, to preserve almost 2,000 acres of green space and wetlands.
The industrial pine forest at the site would be replaced with a hardwood forest that would restore the headwaters of Timothy Creek, which spills into Four Holes Swamp and then into the Edisto River, he said.
The Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comment until Thursday on development of the park.
“Our conversations and outreach to the community are not over, they are just really beginning,” Bennett said. “Santee Cooper intends to continue to engage the community as we move forward. That’s an important responsibility that we have.”
Reach Brenda Rindge at 843-937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.