This commentary was originally published in the Post and Courier.
By Faith Rivers James, Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation League and Chris DeScherer, S.C. Office Director of the Southern Environmental Law Center
Opposition has been expressed recently over the current plans for S.C. Highway 41, referred to as the “compromise alternative” or “road to compromise.” Some of that opposition has focused on environmental impacts of the proposal and, specifically, the wetland impacts it would have.
To be clear, any substantial improvements to Highway 41, including the alternative proposed in 2020, would have impacts to wetlands. One need not look further than recent road projects in our region to see that they invariably result in some impacts to wetlands. But with this compromise alternative, impacts to both wetlands and communities are minimized as much as possible and dispersed equitably throughout the project area.
The compromise alternative resulted from a deliberative process wherein Charleston County Council considered the input and feedback from a full complement of voices. The original “Alternative 1” proposal, placing the entire burden of a five-lane widening of Highway 41 on a single community, was ill-advised and inequitable.
Some opponents to the compromise are urging the Army Corps of Engineers and the county to unravel the compromise, ignore the voices of concerned citizens and return to the original proposal.
A recent story in The Post and Courier noted that the Phillips community “sits on either side of” Highway 41, but a crucial piece of information was omitted: the Phillips community was once united. Highway 41 wasn’t always there.
The road sliced through the middle of the Phillips community in the 1940s, leaving a scar for generations and dividing family properties in half. Founded in 1875 by freed people on the site of the former Phillips plantation, the Phillips community is already paying a high price with a busy highway running through the neighborhood and flooding exacerbated by the construction of newer neighborhoods nearby.
In addition, many residents of Phillips are descended from ancestors who were enslaved on the former Laurel Hill plantation. While recreational open space is important, we are eminently concerned about a historic settlement community bearing the brunt of Highway 41 construction for a second time.
In 2020, when the county proposed to further fragment Phillips by widening Highway 41 from two to five lanes through the heart of the community, residents persisted in their decades-long effort to block that plan and preserve their community. A diverse coalition of advocacy organizations, including environmental groups and historic preservation groups, as well as hundreds of Charleston County residents, fought back against this proposal that would have not only filled wetlands but also further exacerbated the harm to this historic neighborhood.
Our organizations will be the first to tout the importance of wetlands, which provide numerous ecosystem services ranging from important habitat for wildlife to protection of our built communities from flooding and storm damage.
We are on the frontlines fighting to protect wetlands every single day. Although Alternative 1 might have slightly less of an impact on wetlands, the county concluded that it would have more impacts to the floodplain and it would have destroyed 148 years of family and community bonds that remain linked across the teeming traffic on Highway 41. The harm from Alternative 1 is rightly described by the county as having “disproportionately high and adverse effects” to the Phillips community, the highest level of environmental justice impacts considered in the possible plans.
In unique cases like this, balance is key, and historic communities such as Phillips must be taken into consideration in addition to the health of our waters and wildlife. There is room for more equitable options that preserve our natural resources and protect our local communities. This compromise alternative is the best, most balanced, option for this project.
Charleston County listened to community concerns, changed course and chose a plan that responds to the needs of all communities along this portion of Highway 41. This plan also creates an opportunity to increase pedestrian safety, alleviate traffic by more directly routing it to destinations, minimize impacts to wetlands and communities as much as possible and reduce impacts to the floodplain.
What many residents have made clear is that Highway 41 needs a solution to its traffic problem and that it is imperative that any solution improves the dangerous conditions of the highway. We agree, and as such, we support the compromise alternative and urge Charleston County and the Army Corps of Engineers to move forward with this plan for Highway 41.
Faith Rivers James is executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.
Chris DeScherer is the S.C. office director with the Southern Environmental Law Center.