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Editorial: McMaster should intervene to stop the clock on scenic SC Highway 61

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S.C. Highway 61 in the Ashley River Historic District during the January 2018 snow storm. Brad Nettles/Staff

As  you drive along the Ashley River on scenic S.C. Highway 61, suburbia fades in the rearview mirror. A cooling canopy of live oaks envelops the two-lane road like a tunnel into the past. Then comes Drayton Hall, Magnolia Gardens, a stretch of pure woods, a country church, a horse farm. Then, there’s Middleton Place, a piece of land that tells the story of how a new country was carved out of the wilderness.

But now the clock is ticking on the serenity of that treasure. The state Department of Transportation wants to take a chainsaw to dozens of the trees, widen lanes to 12 feet and add 4-foot paved shoulders along a 6.5-mile section of the road in Dorchester County.

The deadline is Oct. 9 for weighing in on the state Department of Transportation’s proposals. To make your voice heard, use the comment form on the DOT’s “SC 61 Rural Roads Project in Dorchester County” website.

The intent is to make the road safer, but at what cost? Surely the rural character of the road would be diminished and detract from the ambiance of the Ashley River Historic District that Charlestonians have worked so hard to preserve.

One has to ask: What’s the value of naming a road a National Scenic Byway or listing it on the National Register of Historic Places if those designations don’t provide tangible protections?

Based on letters to the editor and the public’s response to a Sept. 24 public hearing on the plans, there is overwhelming public opposition to adding 4-foot paved shoulders and removing trees within proposed “clear zones” 12 to 25 feet wide. But that hasn’t slowed down the DOT.

Someone needs to call a timeout, and the obvious person to do that is Gov. Henry McMaster. He should use his influence to encourage the Public Safety Department to work with the DOT to lower the 55 mph speed limit and order the DOT to reach out to other regional and state agencies for input. State lawmakers representing the Lowcountry need to get involved too.

Plantation representatives recently contacted the governor’s office to express their concerns. The Coastal Conservation League and the Historic Charleston Foundation have expressed their opposition to the DOT’s approach as well.

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“The governor’s office has been communicating with Middleton Place director Tracy Todd, SCDOT Secretary Christy Hall, [Parks, Recreation and Tourism] Director Duane Parrish, legislators and county officials,” spokesman Brian Symmes said. “Governor McMaster is confident that Secretary Hall and all stakeholders involved will ultimately come to a solution that preserves and protects both the highway’s natural beauty and public safety.”

The DOT also needs to hold another meeting and this time let members of the public air their considerable concerns. Written responses were accepted at the recent hearing, but disappointingly there was no public comment period.

What’s wrong with matching Charleston County’s changes to Highway 61 between Bees Ferry Road and the county line? Adding 2-foot shoulders and rumble strips, rather than bulldozing grand trees, seems to have worked well there. DOT also should look to other scenic highways where safety measures were implemented with minimal impact on the environment.

And if Highway 61 is any indication of where the DOT’s Rural Roads Program is going, everyone should be worried about what might become of Bohicket Road and other rural roads targeted for “improvement.”

There’s been no discussion about adding guardrails in spots to improve safety and preserve trees. Surely the cost of reducing the speed limit or beefing up enforcement of the 55 mph limit would be far less expensive than adding miles of pavement.

Reasonable compromises can be reached that improve the safety of the road while retaining its historic charm. We urge Gov. McMaster to slow the process and have the DOT consider a wider range of kinder and gentler options for this Lowcountry treasure.

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