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Charleston County's $187M Highway 41 plan creates an uproar in Mount Pleasant

Ken Burkeen.jpg (copy) (copy)

Ken Burkeen, a resident at Horlbeck Creek, watches the traffic speed down S.C. Highway 41 on Sept. 2, 2020, in Mount Pleasant. Residents in that subdivision fear that plans for the road would make it hard to get in and out of their neighborhood. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

MOUNT PLEASANT — Charleston County's $187 million plan to address traffic on S.C. Highway 41 received a chilly reception at a meeting of the town it's meant to help the most. 

None of the nine members of Mount Pleasant Town Council expressed support for the proposal following a presentation March 9, and several expressed concern.

“I can tell you there has already been an uproar from the Dunes West POA," Councilwoman Kathy Landing said.

Landing lives in Dunes West, a roughly 3,000-home subdivision off Highway 41. The county's new plan would widen Dunes West Boulevard from two to four lanes, essentially creating a bypass around the historic Phillips community, where homes sit on both sides of the two-lane highway.

new highway 41 plan (copy)

An overview of Charleston County's new plan for Highway 41 in Mount Pleasant. Provided/Charleston County

The new plan is controversial, as was the last one, and it's an expensive puzzle Charleston County has been trying to solve for years. Suburban development and population growth have created traffic problems but relief only appears possible if roads are widening through one or more communities.

The previous plan called for making the current two lane Highway 41 into a five lane road, from U.S. Highway 17 to the Wando River. The road runs through Phillips, a small majority-Black community where many residents own land their ancestors bought after the Civil War.

Residents there were joined by a broad coalition of Charleston organizations in opposing that plan.

“Highway 41 split the Phillips community in the 1950s," said resident Jonathan Ford. "We’ve already done our part."

The county's new plan, made public on March 4, calls for making most of Highway 41 in Mount Pleasant a 4-lane road, but it would drop to two travel lanes with a center turn lane going through Phillips.

Meanwhile, existing Dunes West Boulevard and a new proposed road would create a half-circle of four-lane road around Phillips, running through the newer subdivision.

"I am strongly against this revised concept," said Dunes West resident Anna Allen. "We need to have better negotiators working on this who can reach a better compromise."

Dunes West Boulevard widening (copy)

Charleston County's new plan to address traffic on S.C. Highway 41 in Mount Pleasant calls for widening Dunes West Boulevard to four lanes. Provided/Charleston County

She said to the sound of applause that many Dunes West residents believe doing nothing would be preferable to the county's new plan.

The plan was developed after nearly 3,000 comments were submitted on the previous one, with roughly half opposing the idea.

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“Man, did we receive some comments," said Rhett Reidenbach, with the Reveer Group, who explained the new plan to Mount Pleasant Town Council on behalf of Charleston County. “It became a very passionate issue for a lot of folks in the Charleston area."

Town Councilman Jake Rambo said "outside groups" appeared to influence the outcome. 

Groups opposing the previous plan included The Coastal Conservation League, Historic Charleston Foundation, Charleston Preservation Society, Save Shem Creek, Charleston Moves, Lowcountry Land Trust, East Cooper Land Trust, Southern Environmental Law Center, Center for Heirs Property Preservation and the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.

At $187 million, the new plan's total cost would be $28 million higher than the previous one, Reidenbach said. Part of the cost comes from creating a new road that would cut across the edge of Laurel Hill County Park.

Councilman Tom O'Rourke, former director of county parks, said the plan would damage the park and historic resources there.

“There will be significant acreage that will never be able to be used by the public again," he said.

Part of the debate has always hinged on the question of where all the traffic is coming from. If much of it is coming from Dunes West and neighboring connected Park West, that could strengthen the case for the current plan.

“Most of the end of trips in this corridor are people returning home to Dunes West and Park West," said Reidenbach. 

He said traffic congestion on Dunes West Boulevard is inevitable if the road isn't widened, and he noted that the road was originally built with a 100-foot-wide right of way to allow space for it to become four lanes some day.

The Dunes West POA Board sent out a lengthy email to residents March 9 laying out concerns, public officials to contact and sample comments that residents could make.

"We accept that Dunes West Boulevard will be widened within its existing right of way, even now," the email said. "What we don't accept is it being widened instead of all of the existing Highway 41 being widened to accommodate four lanes of travel."

Charleston County Council plans to vote on proceeding with the plan in April. Some Mount Pleasant residents and officials believe the process is being rushed after years of studies and earlier plans that went through months of debate and public comment.

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Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.