Tuesday, June 3, 2014
A seemingly short and straightforward meeting agenda belied a lengthy session for Dorchester County Council as Summerville residents aired concerns about recent public works projects they say have gone awry.
Residents of Summerville’s Ashborough West subdivision filled Dorchester County Council Chambers to discuss sound walls – or the lack thereof – on their side of Dorchester Road.
The Ashborough East and Ashborough West neighborhoods are both located along Dorchester Road between Trolley Road and Bacons Bridge Road in Summerville. That section of Dorchester Road is currently being widened.
The residents said they are not so concerned with the construction itself – they have been aware that Dorchester Road has needed and has been slated for such improvements for some time.
The problem is the inconsistency in noise abatement protection, they said. Specifically, sound walls built to help abate traffic noise generated from Dorchester Road have been built in staggered sections on the west side of the road, leaving some 20 homes exposed to the road, while homes on the opposite side of the road – and located farther from the road -- are protected by the walls.
Dorchester County Councilman Larry Hargett, who noted that some 6 percent of the county’s property tax revenue is generated within that Ashborough corridor, invited residents to air concerns to council during Monday night’s meeting.
“When we spend money to make plans to do certain things we sometimes forget the impact our actions can have on some people,” Hargett said. “Tonight we are here to listen to the people I call the “Left Behind People.”
Longtime Ashborough West resident Wesley Birt outlined the residents’ experiences regarding the sound walls. Despite their efforts over several years – at least since 2008 -- they have not been successful, he said.
This not only affects individual property owners’ ability to enjoy their property but erodes property values, he said.
Residents said they are also frustrated by the seemingly endless red tape they feel they must hack through in their search for help and answers. The Dorchester County Tax Authority has told the residents it cannot spend money for sound walls due to South Carolina Department of Transportation regulations; SCDOT says it is bound by federal regulations.
SCDOT officials also have stated that the department has no way to fund either a new study or more walls.
“Based on our regulations, we cannot spend federal funds on a wall in this area,” SCDOT’s Heather Robbins said. That is because the regulations prescribe that need is determined by cost per affected property rather than proximity to the road or projected noise levels. She also stated that, since a study with which the department is confident was completed, and such studies are designed to project trends and issues far into the future, SCDOT would not conduct another study even if it had the funds to do so.
Birt and others, however, pointed out that funds generated locally from the one percent sales tax have funded more than 60 percent of some $22.5 million in Dorchester County Road projects.
Ashborough West resident Henry Proctor said he, Birt, and others have spoken to officials at all levels of government, to no avail, even going so far as to contact Gov. Nikki Haley as well as members of the federal legislative delegation. At each level, they have received sympathy but no results, he said. Proctor suggested that if SCDOT is bound by federal regulations and the county tax authority is bound by SCDOT regulations, then perhaps there may be a way to fund the wall without using state or federal funds, especially since local revenues have funded most of the county’s recent projects.
Jo-Ann Wilhelm noted that residents of Ashborough West have presented four separate petitions since 2008 requesting sound walls, the most recent in December 2013. In fact, the December 2013 petition is an offer to give ten-foot construction easements on their private property from the 20 Ashborough West property owners who are unprotected by a sound wall, she said.
In addition to the loss of quality of life – homeowners cannot enjoy their property due to the noise – property values have already been severely eroded, she said.
“When the road widening had just started and there was no wall, a homeowner on Fort Street was having an appraisal done,” Wilhelm said. “When he balked at how low it was, the appraiser told him it was because of his proximity to Dorchester Road. When he told the appraiser he was getting a sound wall, the appraiser re-calculated his figures at a value of 15 percent higher, which made a $30,000 difference on his home.”
At least one homeowner she knows who is trying to sell her home cannot get potential buyers to even come look at the property, Wilhelm said.
She also commented that the neighborhood’s council representative, Jay Byars, while cordial, has not adequately helped the residents with the issue, and declined to allow the group to address council during his allotted time slot, which was why they were addressing council during Hargett’s allotted time.
Council members were sympathetic to the residents’ concerns.
“It really defies logic,” noted Councilwoman Carroll Duncan describing the present situation with the sound walls. She also asked about the possibility of conducting another study, since the SCDOT study was conducted in 2008 and conditions in the area have changed drastically.
Byars and Councilman David Chinnis also expressed their sympathies, but noted that there are many neighborhood and areas in Summerville and the county who need similar projects for their areas. Byars stressed that he is very sympathetic to the issue but is hesitant to set a precedent using county funds for such a project.
“I have had many sleepless nights over this,” he noted. “But I have to approach this objectively -- there are many areas all over the county that have such needs and council has to find a way to pay for them, because clearly it will have to be done with county funds.”
Chinnis noted that many of his constituents living along Ladson Road not only have the same issue, but actually live closer to Ladson Road than residents of Ashborough West live to Dorchester Road.
“I’m not saying you don’t deserve a wall. But they do, too…If you’re willing to pay for a wall for them, too, then we can have the conversation.”
Council Chair Bill Hearn pointed out that the very same state and federal leaders who have denied the residents their sound walls are the same people who have mandated that the county provide certain services while at the same time cutting local government funds.
Hargett suggested that council bring the situation before the DCTA to see if a solution could be found.
Councilman George Bailey, who chairs the county Public Safety Committee, made a motion, which passed, to bring the situation before the Public Safety Committee to see if a solution could be found. He said the committee would hold a public meeting in the near future.