Left in limbo by proposed I-526 expansion

'We're standing on the road,' said Graham Finch (left) with his wife Phyllis Hanniford on the dock he built adjacent to their James Island home.

JAMES ISLAND -- From the rear porch of Phyllis Hanniford and Graham Finch's home, there are stunning views of Ellis Creek and a marsh teeming with wildlife, and there's no traffic noise at all.

But their house, built just three years ago, is among those in the path of the proposed Mark Clark Expressway expansion, under the alternative recently selected by the S.C. Department of Transportation.

The couple hopes they'll be able to hold out financially until the state buys their home.

Hanniford and Finch said that, like many people during this recession, they can no longer afford the payments on their dream house.

They were trying to sell the nearly 3,500-square-foot house, complete with elevator and second-floor pool, for $1,275,000, but because the state plans to build a road through the property they're now unable to sell it, and the state isn't ready to buy it.

"It's heartbreaking, really," Hanniford said. "We built this thinking that it would be our last house."

All four houses in Ellis Creek Landing, a small development at the end of Riley Road in the town of James Island, are in the path of the expressway. One has been foreclosed upon. The town and the state deny they should have played any role in preventing new luxury homes from being constructed in a place where the state could end up having to buy them.

"We have looked at up to 39 alternatives through this process, and we don't go into protecting all of those corridors," said Dave Kinard, SCDOT's project manager on the Mark Clark project. "Now that the preferred alternative has been released, we are starting to identify the potential impacts."

Even now, the state is allowing that the chosen route for the four-lane road could change. Hanniford and Finch said they have been left in a financial limbo that could drive them to bankruptcy.

Earlier, Finch opposed the completion of the expressway and spoke against it before James Island Town Council, which voted unanimously to oppose the project.

"Environmentally, of course we were opposed to it," Hanniford said.

And if they could keep up with the payments, they could potentially enjoy their home until the state actually starts building the rest of the highway -- a project planned since the early 1970s and is now expected to cost $489 million.

Instead, they now hope the state will move quickly to purchase their property.

Although the alternative selected by the state goes through their house, Finch said it seems like the best option because it will put cars at ground level, and will create a bicycle connection from James Island to Johns Island and West Ashley, and Hanniford said she's pleased the road won't go through the heirs' properties nearby on Riley Road where families have lived for generations.

When James Island issued permits for the new homes three or four years ago, the state was still considering dozens of alternative plans for the highway, ranging from not building it at all, to an elevated high-speed interstate (the Mark Clark Expressway is Interstate 526). Several options would not have routed the roadway through what is now Ellis Creek Landing, but most of the alternatives would have followed that path, which is similar to the conceptual path outlined on Charleston road maps for many years.

"That thing has changed locations so many times," said Joe Qualey, a real estate attorney and James Island councilman. "I don't think we could say to people seeking a building permit that we can't issue a permit because the state might decide to build a road there years later."

"I know a guy who was looking at a lot on Up On The Hill Road about eight years ago, and he didn't buy because he learned the road might go through there," Qualey said.

Kinard said the state handles land acquisitions on a case-by-case basis, and typically does not acquire property until there's a final decision. He said a record of decision is anticipated next spring.

The state did, however, acquire some land for the Mark Clark completion during the 1990s in West Ashley and on James Island, based on a road alignment proposed but never adopted in 1995.

The latest plan will be the subject of five public hearings, which have not all been scheduled yet. And there's still a chance that plan could change.

"There's nothing to say that the recommended preferred alternative can't be tweaked or adjusted in some areas," Kinard said.