GILBRETH COLUMN: Let's have a referendum on the I-526 project

This aerial view shows rice field impoundments along the Cooper River.

On the I-526 front, don't you know that Charleston County Council is jumping for joy (Joe Qualey and Henry Darby notwithstanding) over being relieved of having to decide what to do with the project? This whole issue has become a political football, and it's supported by politicians who want it built.

Therefore, the odds are against opponents who have raised their concerns despite every legitimate due process set forth by the Department of Transportation and County Council. Personally speaking, I think the debate would be a lot more substantive in the absence of mischaracterization.

In other words, we have traffic problems. There's no doubt about it. But does the data really suggest that building an old-fashioned beltway over the most sensitive environmental areas is the single best way of alleviating them?

Does the data suggest without hesitation that barrier island lives will be saved in the event of a major evacuation when there are already two huge bridges providing egress off Johns Island?

Are people who oppose the project truly a minority that happens to be well-funded (Mayor Riley's words)? I bet a lot of them are minority (i.e. black or otherwise) who are anything but well-funded and yet want nothing to do with the "progress" that will come to Johns Island.

Along the same lines, is it reasonable to think that specified zoning restrictions would preclude an inappropriate explosion of growth on the barrier islands? Is this the type of growth corridor we want for Greater Charleston?

Years from now, will county citizens thank us for completing the project, or will they shake their heads in dismay at the trashing of the east Stono River, particularly since the I-526 project is already tinkering on obsolescence?

The fairest solution to this problem is to put a countywide referendum on the matter to a vote. If the majority votes to build, then build it! In the meantime, we appear to be ignoring due process thus far because it doesn't suit certain interests.

Having said that, perhaps my bias is equally mischaracterizing. I'm trying to work on that. Such involves passions of the heart, I guess, because let's face it: We all love Charleston and, like a beautiful bride, want to preserve, keep and protect her, while allowing room for healthy growth.

One of the more interesting things that may soon be evaluated by various state and federal regulatory agencies is whether old rice field dikes can be restored by owners if breached through the natural processes of nature.

As it stands now, a dike that has been eroded through cannot be easily re-established. Currently, the isthmus of water and the acreage within the dike that once constituted the rice field revert to the state, and there's not a darn thing that can be done about it.

Furthermore, there are routine flyovers for the purposes of photographic documentation so that if anyone tries to pull a fast one and repair a dike on the sly, he's liable to be caught, fined and ordered to re-establish the breach.

As a result, owners who paid good money for their land or have sunk a load into it are suddenly bereft of the very thing that they may have wanted most.

Well, there's now something of a realization that maintaining the old rice fields and their dikes is good for the environment, history and the state itself. From an environmental standpoint, these enclaves are gardens for the propagation of marine life while providing amazing habitat for both indigenous and migratory waterfowl.

Maintaining the rice fields and their dikes is a way of preserving history and recalling a bygone era when the seed of Madagascar found its way to the Southeastern U.S. and helped create an economic powerhouse, through African-American slave labor, of course.

Allowing the dikes to wash away without permissible intervention amounts to turning a back on history, the rice culture, the labor that went into it and contemporary educational opportunities.

Remarkable feats of engineering, the dikes are still very much in evidence. (If you don't believe it, examine the riverways from an airplane the next time you're flying into or out of Charleston, or take a boat ride.) It's just a shame to watch them slowly disappear under current guidelines.

And, yes, appropriate maintenance is beneficial to local government because they help maintain property values (translation: property taxes) and state government (through taxable income paid by hunt clubs, etc.).

So, although perhaps well-intentioned, federal regulations and state law as they now stand are counterproductive at best, damaging at worst. Yet, according to a recent report, an accord among property owners and regulators on protecting existing fields and streamlining the permitting process says there is a rising tide of sentiment to make some change, which will hopefully come to fruition.

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@comcast.net.