Pearle Allen sat next to her neighbors in North Charleston City Hall as leaders from the S.C. Department of Transportation explained why construction is needed at the intersection of Interstates 26 and 526.
This construction may require the state to invoke eminent domain, SCDOT project manager Joy Riley said. She flipped through power point slides and landed on one that showed a map of the intersection of the highways, an intersection that currently tears through historic neighborhoods Highland Terrace, Centre Pointe, Liberty Park and Russelldale.
Allen studied the projector screen and saw where her home on Taylor Street, a home that's been in her family for more than 70 years, stood within walking distance of the interstate.
She raised her hand.
"When we go home tonight," she said, "we got nightmares."
Highland Terrace is one of several neighborhoods that may see residents displaced if the SCDOT moves forward with plans to widen I-26 and I-526. SCDOT leaders met with concerned residents as well as local leaders on Wednesday night in North Charleston City Hall to explain what happens if, and when, a homeowner or renter is displaced by highway construction.
Emotions ran high at the meeting that was intended to inform and calm residents like Allen by political leaders who stoked the fire by pressing SCDOT on questions that Riley could not answer. Several of the residents did, however, step out of the Council Chambers during the discussion to sit down with the state's Right of Way relocation staff across the hall and learn more about what relocation benefits would look like for them, if and when they are displaced.
Right-of-way director William Johnston said that as soon as plans are finalized, which could be years from now, agents with SCDOT will personally knock on the doors of homeowners and residents and work with them on assessing their home value and finding similarly-priced homes. Renters who are on a fixed income will not be responsible for paying the difference in rent if SCDOT finds a home that is more expensive than what they currently pay, he said.
"It can take up to a year to relocate folks," he said. "It depends on individuals' circumstances."
Homes that are within 75 feet of the widened highway would need to be removed for safety purposes, Riley said during the meeting. This could affect as many as 31 North Charleston neighborhoods. Several of those neighborhoods, however, are fortunately near parts of I-26 that can make use of grassy and shoulders as opposed to physically widening.
Unfortunately, some neighborhoods, like Highland Terrace, already have homes that are within 75 feet of the existing highway. Some are as close as 20 feet.
That Highland Terrace is one of many deeply rooted African-American neighborhoods north of the peninsula was not lost on local leaders.
"This idea of a 'nightmare,' that's a real context I hope you'll take seriously," Councilman Ron Brinson said during the meeting. "This is a big deal to so many people."
In his own words, Mayor Keith Summey asked SCDOT for reparations for his residents who already live inside the 75-foot buffer created by the last highway construction.
"As an agency of the state, (you) have to come in and straighten up the mess from last time," he said.
During the meeting, Summey told The Post and Courier he is willing to deploy the city's legal team to fight on behalf of the residents and ensure that they receive full relocation benefits as entitled by the Uniform Act of 1970, a federal law governing property acquisitions.
Highland Terrace, like its neighboring communities, predates the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the incorporation of the city of North Charleston in 1972. These neighborhoods even pre-date the interstates that tear through them.
Before Wednesday's meeting, Riley told The Post and Courier that she understood these facts and was committed to having several more meetings with the communities leading up to the summer of 2019 deadline for designs.
She also said that where the SCDOT had faltered in the past, it will, moving forward, adhere to environmental justice studies designed to protect African-American communities.
After the meeting ended, Riley said she knew it would be difficult, but that she plans to have many more meetings with the communities moving forward.
"This is emotional," she said.
The purpose of Wednesday night's meeting was to sit down with residents early, Riley said, even though designs for construction will not be released until the summer of 2019. One of those designs may be no construction at all, she added.