An op-ed written by North Coast Office Project Manager, Trapper Fowler.
Conway Medical Center (CMC) would like you to believe there are only two options for the property they own in Carolina Forest — homes or a hospital — but that’s simply not true. A third realistic option exists that would be in the best interest of all Horry County taxpayers: conservation.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) is highly interested in protecting the CMC property as green space because of its proximity to Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. Lewis Ocean Bay is a one–of–a–kind heritage preserve owned and managed for the benefit of South Carolina residents and visitors to experience the natural beauty of a fire–dependent ecosystem.
Horry County Staff and Council should also be interested in conserving the CMC hospital tract to ensure the success of the proposed mitigation bank. Mitigation banking is the practice of restoring wetlands or other habitats to offset or compensate for road and construction project impacts.
A hospital next door would make managing the mitigation bank very difficult. Like Lewis Ocean Bay, it will also require frequent prescribed fires to release wetland credits, which is necessary to restore the habitat and reduce the risk of wildfires. Limiting prescribed fires will mean a loss of potential mitigation credits and delays and higher costs for needed road improvements. If the proposed hospital is sited elsewhere, SCDNR would take on long–term stewardship of the mitigation bank, as originally planned. This would save taxpayers at least $400,000 tagged to hire a contract burner every two years in perpetuity, as mentioned at the community meeting on April 24. Many residents are calling for improvements to our roads and bridges, be it widening Highway 90, raising roads that flooded during Hurricane Florence, or alleviating the unmanageable traffic in Carolina Forest. If the county approves the rezoning to allow the hospital, they are being the opposite of fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars.
As a former land manager for the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve and a Certified Prescribed Fire Manager, I am qualified to understand why this is no place for a hospital or homes. During the recent community meeting — in which no one from the public was able to speak or ask questions — we heard representatives from the firm Resource Environmental Solutions (RES) say a hospital is not a concern and that release of full mitigation credits should be viable even with a hospital in the vicinity. But when asked, the RES firm representative admitted to not having prescribed fire credentials.
RES also once managed the Waccamaw Mitigation Bank, which also called for prescribed burns to release credits. This mitigation bank was about a fifth the size of the proposed Horry County mitigation bank, and, as an inholding parcel within the greater Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, it had no directly adjacent Smoke Sensitive Areas. Yet, prescribed burning only took place once during the five–year restoration period. This is not nearly enough. In contrast, the Horry County mitigation bank in question is 3,575 acres bordered by subdivisions on three sides and will require prescribed burning on over 2,000 acres twice in the first five–year period to release full credit potential. In addition, the mitigation bank must burn in perpetuity every couple of years given the US Army Corps’ guideline requirements for the management of this fire–dependent habitat.
If prescribed burning does not occur on schedule for the proposed mitigation bank, then the county must buy wetland mitigation credits on the open market at a current valuation of $8,000 per credit. For every acre of wetland impact that is unavoidable when improving our existing and future roads, credits must be purchased, and it is not a 1:1 ratio. Depending on the wetland impacted, mitigation requirements can range up to several credits for just one acre disturbed.
As taxpayers, nature lovers, recreationists, hunters, and adjacent homeowners, we should all be concerned about any future development on this proposed parcel. The current hospital proposal stands to increase the challenges of a long–standing prescribed fire program. Yet, this area is also home to two of our state’s largest and most destructive wildfires on record. We need to ensure that prescribed burning continues as much as possible to protect the community and our beloved natural resources.
When looking at undeveloped tracts of land, conservation is not always a realistic option. But in this case, not only is it a realistic option, but the highest and best use of the property. Our Horry County 2040 Comprehensive Plan supports this, with a Future Land Use Designation of Scenic and Conservation. We’re not opposed to a new hospital in Carolina Forest — this is simply the wrong site.
We implore Horry County Council to act in the best interest of taxpayers and deny the request to rezone the property for this type of development. We also encourage Conway Medical Center to pursue the highest and best use of the property, which is neither houses nor a hospital, but conservation.