AWENDAW — Discussion has restarted on where a new high school might land in northern Charleston County, but environmentalists are worried one plan could backfire.
The Charleston County School District is considering two sites for a future school to replace Lincoln High, though it's still unclear whether the project would serve middle school students as well. The school board voted to close Lincoln in 2016 because of poor performance and financial struggles.
The plan being supported by the town of Awendaw, which would put the school on a more than 180-acre tract off Doar Road, would share the parcel with an approved housing development. Together, the development and school would require their own sewer treatment, and the town has said it would run a small-scale facility commonly known as a "package plant."
Historically, package plants in the region have failed, said Jason Crowley of the Coastal Conservation League. There's no public sewage system in Awendaw.
What's more, the treated effluent from the plant will need to be deposited somewhere, and the site selected is land just 2½ miles up the road — on a tract slated to be a public park, bought with almost $5.2 million in Charleston County Greenbelt funds.
Proponents argue the system, which may run through an underground drip, wouldn't be significantly different than septic drain fields in backyards around the region. Many in Awendaw are also eager to see a new school to replace Lincoln.
But, Crowley said, "That’s treated sewage being released onto a publicly owned property. If it is such benign intervention, why can't they do that on the school property itself?"
Awendaw Town Administrator Bill Wallace could not be reached after multiple phone messages and a visit to town hall.
Awendaw, a rural town threaded within the Francis Marion National Forest, has been bracing for additional growth as nearby Mount Pleasant reaches build-out. New development there, environmentalists said, has the potential to put stress on two natural preserves: the national forest and the nearby Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
Supporters of siting a school near the intersection of Doar Road and U.S. Highway 17 say the site makes sense, however, because the school would be near the area where Awendaw is trying to grow its town center. The alternative school site that CCSD is considering is off Jenkins Hill Road, farther north on U.S. 17, just outside the northern boundary of the town.
Meanwhile, the Doar Road location has been under discussion for years. In 2017 a plan to purchase it fell through because the school district said the site had too many wetlands on it to make building feasible.
But the property has since changed hands. The town of Awendaw has approved two possible development plans there — one that's entirely homes, and one that includes homes and a school, said Karl Zerbst, a managing partner in the limited liability company that purchased the land for $2.4 million in February.
A possible site plan submitted to the Greenbelt Advisory Board shows more than 160 lots, in addition to a combined high school and middle school. Zerbst said there are no immediate plans to start moving dirt, however.
"I have no contract that's been given to me. I have no letter of intent," Zerbst said. "I have spoken to several developers that have interest in it, but I have nothing from them in writing."
Meanwhile, the site where sewage would be deposited is being mined for dirt by a development company owned by Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey. The company, Jackson Development, is also helping to dig a lake on the site for the future park. It's unclear what portion of the site will be used to handle sewage.
The greenbelt panel would need to approve the sewage plan, which would then go on to County Council. The board will next consider the issue on May 8.
Ultimately, the Doar Road park is supposed to be a centerpiece for recreation in Awendaw, and will eventually be the site of the town's Blue Crab Festival.
Striking a deal
The school district is in active negotiations with the owners of both potential sites. However, both Crowley and school board member Todd Garrett challenged whether the Awendaw area really needed a new school, with the impending opening of Lucy Beckham High.
"Realistically you’re about to create 1,500 new seats in Mount Pleasant," Garrett said. "When are you going to have enough students to justify a new facility?"
Garrett also said the alternative site, farther north on U.S. 17, would be an easier proposition because the school board wouldn't have to deal with the plans of a private developer.
Joe Bowers, an Awendaw resident who used to serve on the District 1 Board of Constituents for the district, is a proponent of the Doar Road site as opposed to the other location — it would be easy for the school to tap into the municipal water supply, for one thing.
Supporters have also pointed out that depositing sewage on another site has been done before, because that's how Lincoln handled its effluent. In that case, sewage was pumped to a lagoon miles away. When the lagoon got too high, the effluent was sprayed by a sprinkler system over a field.
The spray field was right next to Tibwin AME Church's graveyard, off Old Georgetown Road; longtime congregant Tomas Colleton said the church tried to challenge the plan decades ago, but ultimately, state health officials said there would be no ill effects.
"For 20 years that thing was going and nobody had nothing to say," said Colleton, who is also the chair of the District 1 Board of Constituents. "We didn’t have any support from no environmental group."
But now, Colleton said, far-flung students in the northern end of the county are facing 45-minute bus rides to school, a burden that a new high school could help correct.
"I want a school back out here because nobody cares about our children. Nobody cares," Colleton said. "Our kids have to get up in the dark, come back home in the dark."