COLUMBIA — At just 27 acres, a plan to turn privately owned Pine Island on Lake Murray into a state park would give it the title of smallest in South Carolina.
Getting to the park, though, requires driving through residential neighborhoods in one of the fastest-growing areas of the Midlands, raising alarms with neighbors and posing challenges to its future operation.
Less than 20 miles from downtown Columbia, the site currently serves as a private retreat for employees and guests of utility giant Dominion Energy, which manages the hydropower-generating lake.
A settlement negotiated between the company and the state to help cover unpaid taxes on a failed nuclear power plant expansion would turn it over to the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism. Talks over the timing of the transfer are ongoing.
When opened, the park — with its boat ramp, shoreline picnic areas and conference center — would add more public access to a lake popular with boaters and anglers that's marketed as the “Jewel of South Carolina."
But those living in a nearby highly developed residential area that has roughly 1,000 current and future homes worry about a stream of visitors adding traffic along a two-lane road that serves as the only way in and out of the park.
With few details finalized, they think more public input should be gathered before changes are made.
“When it's a private island and your company owns it, you're going to know a lot of the people that are out there with you,” said Rick Levitan, whose neighborhood is nearly next door to Pine Island and whose home overlooks it. “You’re going to have a certain amount of ownership.”
“Now all of a sudden, it's open to the world,” Levitan added. “That's a whole other ballgame.”
South Carolina has not opened a new state park in 20 years, State Parks Director Paul McCormack said, but the deal with Dominion could add three sites: Pine Island; 190 acres at Misty Lake in North Augusta; and 2,600-acre Ramsey Grove plantation on the Black River in Georgetown County.
Pine Island, neighbors say, creates unique challenges not currently faced by the park system because it's located within the state's second-largest metropolitan area rather than the more rural locales of its other sites.
McCormack argues the parks agency has experience in managing traffic at some of its busier 47 parks and historic sites.
All four of the state's coastal parks — Myrtle Beach State Park, Huntington Beach State Park near Murrells Inlet, Hunting Island State Park near Beaufort and Edisto Beach State Park — along with a number of mountain sites reach capacity every weekend, he said, requiring control of traffic and parking.
“I'm confident in our ability to be a good neighbor,” McCormack said about Pine Island. "We won’t allow problems to go unresolved."
Still, many residents, some of whom have lived near Pine Island for 30 years and have grown used to its members' only access, worry those past experiences and assurances from the state park system are not going to be enough to control demand from the general public, including the more than 136,000 people living in Columbia eager for lake access.
For starters, the majority of state parks are above 1,000 acres in size. Pine Island is a fraction of that and has just 12 paved parking spots, along with a grass and gravel overflow lot, Levitan said.
McCormack points to the agency's management of Jones Gap State Park in northern Greenville County, which, while larger in acreage, has just 37 parking spaces that visitors must reserve before they arrive. Parking attendants post on social media when there are openings.
Jones Gap is also preparing to add an electronic sign 6 miles out from the entrance, along the nearby state highway, to show when it's at capacity and keep them from coming down the narrow road in.
In addition to parking concerns, Pine Island neighbors point out that the state's other parks aren't in residential areas.
“It's not like you're driving to a state park out in the middle of nowhere,” Levitan said of Pine Island.
Roughly 800 homes and condos currently depend on the state road winding to the island site, with another 170 homes proposed for currently undeveloped land in the area. The narrow, 17-foot-wide causeway leading to the island could back up with vehicles towing watercraft waiting their turn to enter, blocking the way to a number of neighborhoods.
McCormack acknowledges that the density of housing is greater around Lake Murray but there are other parks near developed areas.
The entrance to Edisto Beach State Park, for example, also is along the only road leading into the barrier island of Edisto Beach in the Lowcountry. When the park hits capacity, he said, an attendant will be posted at the gate to keep cars from turning in. They also call in local law enforcement to direct traffic in emergency situations, stopping vehicles before they cross onto the island.
Despite all this, Pine Island neighbors view the park proposal as a change in use, which they believe warrants traffic and environmental impact studies before its allowed to open to the public at large.
Levitan said nearly 200 residents have banded together on the issue and are sending daily letters to Gov. Henry McMaster. The governor's office has not responded directly.
"When people buy their homes, when people invest, they study the area. For some of these people, this is a retirement decision," Levitan said, one they may not have made had they known there was the possibility of a state park in their backyards.
All have grown anxious as they wait for negotiations to be completed and plans to be formulated.
McCormack said once his agency has control of the property it will begin holding public input sessions, both for the general public and more targeted ones for neighbors to provide feedback.
So far, his team has only just been able to make site visits to the island in the last month. When they do gain control, he said his agency will not immediately move into developing more assets on the island, keeping it as day-use only for at least the first year.
"We’re not going to open the day we get the keys," he said.
And with a number of docks for boats on the site, it could actually be an asset to those area residents without their own lakefront access, allowing them to rent out a space to keep their watercraft near their homes.
While there won't be a full master planning session afforded to new parks, there will be surveys, public input and environmental reviews before any decisions are made to add amenities, like campsites.
If neighbors had their druthers, the island would be sold and remain a private venue or be made into a nature preserve with an education center, not allowing for boating or camping.
"The problem is we don't know what they're going to do," Levitan said.