A controversial road plan

When James Blake was a child, he lived on a large James Island property owned by his extended family at Riverland Drive and Central Park Road, attended Murray-Lasaine Elementary, and helped his family farm the land.

“We had cows, pigs, chickens," Blake said. "Any vegetable you can name, we grew."

That was more than 50 years ago, he said. Now, his family land — heirs' property — is facing a threat driven by all the development and population growth in the Charleston area.

Tuesday night, Charleston County Council is poised to approve a redesign plan for the intersection of Riverland Drive and Central Park Road that would require several acres of the Blake family's more than 7-acre vacant property. Two building lots on the property would become undevelopable.

“This land has been in our family for over century," said Blake, who recently returned to South Carolina after 30 years in the Army. “I served and fought for my country, and now I have to fight for my land."

Another option, a rival road plan alternative, would require tearing down an occupied home on the opposite side of Central Park Road. Owner Zach Robinson said he had no knowledge of the planned intersection improvements when he bought the house in September.

"I don’t want to make it about me versus them," Robinson said. "It’s like we’re being pitted against each other."

“I just don’t want my house to be torn down. I just got this house," he said. "I hope nobody has to lose anything."

The intersection, across the street from Murray-Lasaine Elementary, is a dangerous one. Between 2013 and 2015, it was the site of two dozen accidents, one of them fatal.

Charleston County plans to spend more than $4 million to redesign the intersection, but the two leading alternatives pose a difficult choice. One option, recommended for approval Tuesday and known as alternative 3, would create an unusual elongated traffic circle and require 2.16 acres of the Blake property. 

The choice facing County Council — tearing down someone's house or taking acres of land from a family that's owned it for more than a century — is just the latest conflict in the population-driven need to expand or widen roads throughout the greater Charleston area.

Blake is particularly frustrated that a desire to preserve live oak trees on scenic Riverland Drive is among the reasons that the plan requiring acres of his family's land was favored.

“It’s basically two roundabouts joined together with a grass median, to preserve some live oak trees," said county Construction Manager Devri Detoma. “Some people have been calling it the dog bone, or a double-roundabout, or an elongated roundabout."

Roundabouts are favored by traffic engineers because they improve safety by eliminating the need to make left turns across oncoming traffic lanes. That road option for the James Island intersection would have the smallest number of traffic "conflict points," Detoma said.

Councilwoman Anna Johnson represents that part of Charleston County, and opposes the plan that impacts the Blakes. Councilmen Teddie Pryor and Henry Darby joined her on the losing side of the vote over which plan to recommend.

“The community people have been there since the 1800s, y’all," she said at Thursday's council committee meeting. “The trees? We can grow more trees."

Johnson had less sympathy for Robinson. 

"Pay that man all the money he wants to have, to buy another house on James Island," she said.

Council Chairman Elliott Summey faulted the city of Charleston for permitting construction of the house Robinson purchased.

"Shame on the city," he said.

Jacob Lindsey, Charleston's director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability, said that without a final road design, a city could not block someone from building a house.

“Without an approved plan in place, private land owners have the right to build on private land," he said.

For similar reasons, the state ended up spending millions to buy recently constructed homes in the path of Interstate 526, which were permitted by the town of James Island.

Lindsey said that any plan to improve the intersection would impact trees and private property, because the intersection is so tight now.

“We would hope that the best alternative would be chosen based on all factors – private property, the school, traffic flow, and trees on a scenic roadway," he said.

For now, based on the County Council's 6-3 vote Thursday, the plan impacting the Blake family property is the favorite. 

"Either way, somebody's going to leave here mad," Summey said.

Note: The County Council declined to make a decision on the road plans at the meeting Feb. 26, instead deferring the issue until at least the next meeting, on March 12.

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Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com