S.C. Department of Transportation right-of-way agent William Johnston discusses relocation assistance during a meeting between community members as the SCDOT is in the planning phases to widen the intersection of I-26 and I-526 Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

A handful of residents along Interstates 26 and 526 in North Charleston are among the latest to experience one of the most drastic things the state can do: take someone's home away from them.

While the process has evolved to be more sensitive and now carries the euphemism "right-of-way acquisition," it still can deliver a devastating blow to longtime residents and the neighborhoods where they have lived for years.

By law, the state is required to finance the relocation of all affected homeowners and tenants; owners receive the fair-market value of their properties, and the state works to ensure everyone is relocated to a similarly priced home. 

The S.C. Department of Transportation is about a year away from offering various plans that will show specifically which residents may be able to stay and which ones will have to move. 

Shaundra Young Scott is the executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina and an active member of Preserve the Gullah, a local task force founded by Willie Heyward Jr.

She grew up in North Charleston off of Dorchester Road but went to North Charleston High School in the Liberty Hill neighborhood. She is familiar with the neighborhoods potentially affected by the widening of I-26 and I-526.

Scott said she fears residents don't have enough information to understand their options.

"Everything about the project needs to be transparent," Scott said. "We must be more informed about our rights, because for so long we haven't had any."

'Can't fight the state'

North Charleston City Councilwoman Dot Williams, a resident of Highland Terrace, invited DOT project manager Joy Riley and Johnston to meet with residents in mid-May — about a year before the DOT's mandatory public hearing.

At that meeting, Riley and Johnston explained how relocation works, and Williams encouraged residents from Highland Terrace, Centre Pointe, Russelldale and Liberty Park to meet with right-of-way agents after the meeting. She knows she will likely lose her mother's home on Jonah Street.

"We can't fight the state," the councilwoman told residents at North Charleston City Hall. 

The process of losing one's home is emotional, but this sort of relocation happens every day across South Carolina’s 46 counties, DOT staffer William Johnston said. 

Johnston likened the state’s relocation efforts to open-heart surgery.

"It's routine for us," he said. "But it's devastating when it's you." 

What is 'relocation'?

The DOT is required to adhere to the Uniform Act of 1970, a federal law governing property acquisitions. It mandates that those people displaced by road construction receive a fully funded move.

Any construction project that receives state or federal funding will have oversight from the right-of-way department.

Before the DOT can even begin fleshing out design alternatives, right-of-way agents swoop in and meet with people who may be displaced. 

In addition to title work, the agents sit down with homeowners and business owners to assess a realistic sum of money needed to finance a real estate agent, moving expenses and similarly priced rent or mortgage payments. 

Of the office's 85 full-time employees, about 40 right-of-way agents are based in Columbia. All agents tackle relocation services across the state, but sometimes the work is so great that as many as eight relocation companies are contracted to assist in the process, Johnston said.

There are several relocation efforts under way, but two that jumped to Johnston's mind on Wednesday night included the impacts of widening Interstate 85 through Spartanburg County and widening Alligator Road through Florence County. 

The work along I-85 has led the state to acquire about 300 tracts, Johnston said — "tracts" include homes, businesses, farm land and undeveloped land. 

Alligator Road 

In Florence County, a handful of homeowners and businesses along Alligator Road are receiving relocation services. In 2006, county residents voted on a referendum that would use a 1-cent sales tax, along with state money, to complete needed constructions projects.

Widening of Alligator Road was identified as a way to improve connectivity within the county, according to a report. Of course, that work comes with a cost. Tentative designs showed that at least five and as many as 10 homes would be displaced by the work.

Knowing communities would be impacted either way, DOT project manager Brian Dix did exactly what Riley did on Wednesday.

He met with residents in neighborhood churches along Alligator Road, offering one-on-one conversations with concerned homeowners, renters and business owners.

"It's definitely good to get their feedback to get a local perspective that we may or may not have," Dix said. 

At the public hearing on Dec. 1, 2016, Dix showed residents a PowerPoint report that provided an apples-to-apples comparison of the impacts of the two plans:

One option, to create five lanes along the road, would cost $111 million and displace eight homes, 10 businesses, and 20 acres of farmland. It also would take 4.7 acres of flood plains and 1.2 acres of wetlands.

The second option, to create a road with five lanes in some spots but only three in others, would cost $97.7 million and displace five homes, four businesses and 18 acres of farmland. It also would take 3.8 acres of flood plains and 1.1 acres of wetlands. To residents' relief, the state chose this option.

"It's never going to be easy," Dix said. "We try to show them we're gonna take care of them in the end."

The project is now through its engineering phase, and as soon as displaced residents are relocated, construction will begin. 

Highland Terrace

Current highway standards call for a 75-foot buffer between the construction zone and the nearest home.

Because many interstates were built before these standards were in place, some homes in North Charleston's Highland Terrace, Liberty Park, Centre Pointe and Russelldale neighborhoods are much closer, some as close as 25 feet of I-26. 

No matter how DOT configures future expansion in the I-26/I-526 corridor, residents like Williams will inevitably lose their homes. 

These four neighborhoods are only a few of the North Area's African-American communities, some of which are as old as 1871. 

"Environmental justice" is a phrase used to describe a phase of eminent domain in which the state must study the impacts of construction on African-American and under-served communities.

Between now and the public hearing in the summer of 2019, Riley plans to meet several times with residents in intimate community meetings. 

Councilwoman Williams grew up on Jonah Street in Highland Terrace in the 1950s and 1960s, a time that predates the interstates, Boeing's manufacturing plant and Tanger Outlets. Her home even predates the incorporation of the city of North Charleston. 

"It was the country," she said, noting the dirt roads and outdoor baths of her childhood. 

Today, her neighbors may not know for years if they will be forced to move. One resident told DOT project manager Joy Riley that this reality would give her nightmares.

This, Scott said, is injustice. While it may not be possible to get around eminent domain, Preserve the Gullah has an opportunity to help raise awareness of the importance of preserving the Gullah-Geechee culture. The group plans to contact Williams about interviewing residents for a documentary. 

In an earlier version of this story, Willie Heyward’s name was misspelled as Willie Haywood.

Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.