What's up with Anna Johnson? Reversal on I-526 leaves many questions, hurt feelings

Rhen Bennett, 12, a resident of Johns Island, joins the Horres family in protesting the completion of Interstate 526 prior to a December public hearing at the Lonnie Hamilton, III Public Services Building in North Charleston. “I don't want them destroying my marshlands,” Bennett said.

Charleston County Councilwoman Anna Johnson campaigned and won her seat as an opponent of the completion of Interstate 526.

After two years seated on the dais, she cast one of the deciding votes to build the controversial, half-billion-dollar project across Johns and James islands. But the elusive councilwoman refuses to explain her change of heart in any detail, especially what she meant by an amendment she proposed that stated the county would make a “good faith effort” to compensate the more than 3,000 property owners within 1,000 feet of the proposed path of I-526 for the drop in the value of their property.

Council Chairman Teddie Pryor subsequently said the county isn't going to pay anybody, and that the amendment never meant financial compensation.

Johnson, 65, would not agree to an interview about where she stands on I-526, and would not answer a direct question last week on whether by compensation, she meant financial compensation. “I have nothing new to say on this,” she said.

Johnson, a James Island Democrat, also has refused to respond to direct questions, emails, and voice mail messages from many of her constituents, who would like explanations about her vote, and whether they can expect payment for the impact the road will have on the value of their property. Several of them said they were upset with Johnson's recent actions, but they preferred not to discuss their feelings publicly.

Johns Island native and civil rights activist Bill Saunders said he has tried to reach Johnson, but she didn't respond. “I don't know anybody who has communicated with her,” he said.

That upsets him, Saunders said, because she represents the sprawling District 8, which includes Johns, Wadmalaw, Edisto and a portion of James islands, and the southwestern part of the county. “She seems to have little interest in the people she represents,” he said.

He was devastated Dec. 13, 2012, when Johnson cast one of the deciding votes to build I-526, a road he thinks will open the door to development and destroy a rural way of life for people on the county's Sea Islands.

But he was initially impressed with her proposed amendment to compensate people. “It sounded good, like people might at least get a little something back.”

He's not surprised that Johnson doesn't seem to be standing by her compensation amendment. But the way she appears to be backtracking on the plan gives him “a hurt feeling thing,” he said.

And not responding to people is making them feel even worse, he said. As an elected official, “You've got to make people know exactly where you stand.”

“I'm not sure Ms. Johnson has a full grasp on what she's gotten herself into for the future of the Sea Islands,” Saunders said. “I don't think she can see the magnitude of this.”

The Rev. Charles Heyward, pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church on James Island, said most of his congregants are opposed to the completion of I-526, because of the negative impact it will have on black communities. “Black folks will suffer the major property loss” if I-526 is built, he said, as has been the case for much development on the Sea Islands.

He thinks Pryor and Johnson should work to fairly compensate people whose property loses value because of the road. And payments should be made through a formula, not based on who people are.

Candace Ackerman also has hurt feelings.

She and Johnson, both James Island natives, attend church together at First Baptist Church of James Island.

She voted for Johnson in the November 2010 election. “She ran on a ticket that she was opposed to I-526,” Ackerman said. “I never would have voted for someone who would upset my heritage and my family.”

Four generations of Ackerman's family members live on Delaney Drive on James Island. Family members have owned the land along the quiet dirt road since 1936.

If I-526 is built as proposed, it would pass just a few hundred feet from the eight family-owned homes along the road.

Isaac Godfrey, one of Ackerman's relatives, has said the family would trade deer and tranquility for noise and fumes.

Ackerman felt heartsick when Johnson voted to build I-526, even with the compensation amendment. “I just don't want it to happen,” she said of the road. “That's what I would see from my porch.”

She thinks Johnson proposed the compensation amendment as “a way to appease those who supported her” for changing her stance on the project. “She thinks it's a way to make up for it,” Ackerman said.

And now that Johnson appears to be backtracking on a plan to pay people, she and many people she knows are becoming even more disappointed and angry. “It was an extremely deceptive move on her part,” Ackerman said. Johnson put the option out there, but isn't following through with it, she said.

“It baffles me that you can put that kind of amendment in place, but when you're asked about it, you dodge the question,” she said. “At the very least, we deserve an explanation, a simple yes or no.”

Johnson, who previously had served on the James Island Town Council in the mid-1990s, campaigned against I-526 when she ran for the Charleston County District 8 seat in 2010.

On April 19, 2011, after Johnson was on the council for just a few months, the group voted against building the road.

It took two votes that night. The first was on whether to reject the parkway plan for the road, known as Alternative G. Johnson was among the majority of six members who voted against the state Department of Transportation's preferred plan. Then, the group voted on not building the road in any form, which passed with a 5-3 vote, with Johnson supporting not building it.

On Dec. 13, however, Johnson voted to build the road. She said at the time that she was opposed to the parkway plan for the road, but she could support it if council included some amendments. One of those amendments, arguably the most controversial one, called for the county to make a “good faith effort” to evaluate and consider claims made by residents for compensation due to the impact of the MCE (Mark Clark Expressway) on their property.”

The project passed with a 5-4 vote.

State Rep. Robert Brown, D-Hollywood, said Johnson is committed to her rural constituents on issues that affect their property, and he appreciates that about her.

In rural areas which make up much of his and Johnson's districts, failing to get ditches cleaned regularly or properly maintain dirt roads could end an elected official's days in office, he said.

Johnson has taken on issues her predecessors ignored, he said, such as helping them gain more flexibility in how they use and develop their property. She also has addressed concerns about ditches, drainage and water, he said. “I applaud her for those.”

But, when it comes to I-526, he said, “I don't agree with her.”

He chuckles when he talks about Pryor suggesting that compensating people means anything other than paying people. “It was my understanding that those people who live within 1,000 feet of the road would be compensated,” he said. “I feel they should be paid.”

He expects the compensation amendment to lead to lawsuits, he said, “and rightly so.”

James Island resident Robert Welch, 88, has lived on the island since 1925, when his father brought him there on a boat from Charleston when he was just 5 years old.

He served on the James Island Town Council with Johnson in the mid-1990s. “She was the closest associate I had by far,” Welch said. “She was reliable, dependable and had great integrity.”

When he heard in 2010 that Johnson was running for County Council, he supported her and donated to her campaign.

At 88 years old, he said, he's “not overly concerned about 526.” But he follows the issue, and thinks Johnson definitely meant financial compensation. He's not sure why she appears to be backtracking. “I think she got talked into it, probably by Pryor,” Welch said. That surprises him, he said, because, “she was a rock-solid person when I served with her.”

He called her to talk to her about that. He left a message, but Johnson didn't call him back. “She knows I'm going to fuss at her,” he said.

Welch's granddaughters Robin and Jenny Welch, who also live on James Island, are passionate about their opposition to I-526. They launched the widely popular opposition group Nix 526, and continue to fight the project even after County Council voted to build it.

Their most recent efforts involve holding information sessions for people who live within 1,000 feet of the proposed path of I-526 on how to file claims for reductions in the value of their property.

Robin Welch said she supported Johnson when she ran for council, and made a contribution to her campaign because Johnson was opposed to building I-526.

She also has tried to reach Johnson, she said, but Johnson doesn't respond. “She just doesn't,” Welch said. “Anything that's not scripted, she doesn't take part in it.”

But, she's not giving up on Johnson entirely, because Johnson still could reverse her vote and stop I-526, Welch said. “Anna Johnson is an important hope for us. She has the power to save our islands. ... The question is, will she do it?”

Johns Island resident Greg Hollingsworth said he's not a member of Nix 526, but he's opposed to building I-526 because of the cost and because it's not a state or regional priority.

He's trying to develop a positive relationship with Johnson by attending monthly information sessions on county services that Johnson holds at the Johns Island Regional Library. The next session in late October will focus on fire prevention and include a demonstration on how to put out a fire with a fire extinguisher.

But Hollingsworth doesn't feel like he can ask Johnson a question about I-526 at those sessions, he said, because Johnson sticks to the agenda. He has suggested a session on I-526 and other road projects, he said, but Johnson and county staffers haven't agreed to schedule it.

John King is a West Ashley resident and one of the administrators of Charlestonians for I-526, a group that supports the completion of the road so strongly that it has adopted the slogan, “Just build it.”

He thinks Johnson took into consideration all of the residents of Charleston County, not just her constituents, when she voted in favor of I-526. And members of his group appreciate that, he said.

He thinks her amendment meant that some people would be financially compensated, he said. But he thinks compensation should be available only to people who purchased their property before the 1970s, when I-526 originally was planned as a loop around Charleston.

Although he can empathize with people who will lose money on their property, he said, people knew, should have known, or should have been told by real estate agents that the road was planned.

Councilman Herb Sass, a Republican, is one of the few people who can empathize with Johnson for the pressure she felt around I-526. He was another of the deciding votes to build.

Sass won a special election for County Council's East Cooper seat in 2011, and wasn't yet on council for the first votes on I-526, which were taken in April of that year.

From the day he took his seat, Sass said, he was heavily lobbied from both sides of the I-526 debate including by proponents from the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and billionaire philanthropist Anita Zucker, and opponents from the Coastal Conservation League and Nix 526.

The lobbying grew progressively more intense up until the Dec. 13 vote, he said.

Johnson's amendments, which weren't presented to most council members until the night they voted on them, didn't sway his vote, he said. He weighed the pros and cons and decided voting in favor of building I-526 was the right thing for him to do, he said.

He doesn't think the compensation amendment means that everybody in the path of I-526 should be paid, he said. “I read it as we should do a study and decide if anybody should be compensated.”

But in retrospect, he said, “I don't like the amendments muddying up the water.” They complicate the already contentious issue, he said, and he wishes they weren't part of the deal. “I wonder if maybe I should have said something.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.