Conway Medical Center leaders began redesigning plans for a Carolina Forest hospital after Horry County planning staff and state wildlife officials raised environmental concerns about the project.
The county planning commission will make a recommendation Thursday about rezoning the land for the hospital, and CMC leaders have been trying to meet with officials from the county and the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to answer their questions. Both the county and DNR have raised concerns about the impact of the proposed hospital on the area’s wetlands and the challenge of operating a medical facility close to thousands of acres that are periodically burned for land management.
“The misconception that I’ve seen in the community is ‘Conway Medical Center’s coming on this big natural tract and they’re going to build this massive medical facility that’s going to ruin the ecosystem and all these wetlands,'” said Brian Argo, CMC’s chief financial officer. “The one thing I would want everybody to know is this is a 30-acre project and we have 157 buildable acres.”
The site for the proposed $161 million hospital sits on International Drive just north of The Farm subdivision. When International was extended to S.C. 90, the county and DNR agreed to install gates on each end of the road. Those gates can be lowered to close the road during controlled burns on the 10,427-acre Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. Eventually, there will also be burning on the 3,707-acre Independent Republic Heritage Preserve, which is adjacent to the land CMC is eyeing for the hospital.
The potential hospital site lies inside the International Drive gates. Argo said he didn’t think the gates would be an issue because the property holds a residential zoning that would allow for single-family homes and even an apartment complex there. The healthcare provider was unaware of DNR’s concerns until last week.
“When we started hearing the gates have to be closed with controlled burns, our thought was, ‘What would you do with 700 households if you had to close the gates to do controlled burns?’” Argo said. “‘What is the difference between households and a healthcare system?’ … Regardless of what goes here, if there is a controlled burn, you’re going to have to move the gates.”
After reviewing the DNR letter, Argo said CMC leaders worked with their engineers to redesign the hospital plans. They moved the location of the facility from the northern end of the property to the end closer to The Farm. Although changing the location would impact more wetlands — possibly about 10 acres — Argo said it would put the hospital farther from the preserve land, creating a buffer. CMC leaders also hope DNR will move the gates so the hospital could be accessible even if the road is closed for burning.
DNR spokesman David Lucas said the agency has not discussed moving the gates on International Drive.
“Regardless of where the gate is located, you’d still have to close the road when conditions warranted it,” Lucas said. “It is not safe to drive on those roads when there’s a controlled burn going on.”
Lucas noted the state agency’s position on the project has not changed since the director’s letter was sent last week.
CMC’s architect is researching any building or ventilation changes that could be made to address problems with smoke. Argo said the Carolina Forest hospital could even divert patients to the Conway facility if needed.
The property is nearly 360 acres, and 223 of those are wetlands. However, Argo said the hospital would only need 30 acres for the initial phase of the project and a maximum of 50 acres for the complete buildout.
“Obviously, we want to build our project,” Argo said. “We think it’s an appropriate use for this land. And then we’re happy to work with the county on creating natural buffers, even if that means that we’re going to give up some of this land to the county.”
Once they heard the environmental concerns from DNR and the county, CMC officials considered asking the planning commission to defer making a recommendation on the project. But CMC spokeswoman Allyson Floyd said Monday that they plan on moving forward with the rezoning request at Thursday’s meeting.
Once the commission makes a recommendation, the project would then go to county council, which has the final decision in all zoning changes.
Along with the rezoning, CMC is also asking the county to change its future land use plan, which calls for the property to remain scenic and conservation land. Although a developer could build homes or apartments on the property now, the future land use plan exists to guide rezoning decisions. That plan represents what county officials believe the property should be in the years to come.
However, county regulations do allow a developer to present evidence that a project would fit well in an area even if it doesn’t match the future land use plan. CMC has requested that the land use plan be amended.
If the project receives the needed changes from the county, CMC must also secure state approval for the project. That permission, called a certificate of need, requires that CMC prove the 50-bed hospital would serve an unmet need.
Although McLeod Health has proposed building a 48-bed hospital less than two miles away, Argo said state officials should not consider the two projects competing. If the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) determines the projects are competing, DHEC could approve one hospital and not the other (McLeod is already opposing CMC’s plans).
The key difference here, Argo said, is that McLeod wants to increase the total number of hospital beds available. CMC has suggested shifting 50 of the available beds at the provider’s main hospital in Conway to a new facility in Carolina Forest.
“McLeod is asking for brand new beds in the state health plan,” he said. “We are looking to transfer underutilized beds here to there. … That’s also why we decided to go to Carolina Forest. Because that’s where the need is.”
Argo said some of the objections to CMC’s Carolina Forest project are unfounded.
“There is a path forward that everyone can benefit from,” he said. “The Carolina Forest community can benefit from it because our project is very, very small considering all the available land on this property. I think we can work successfully with the county to come up with a resolution to create nice natural buffer that meets their needs. And I think we can certainly work with DNR — and DNR has said they are willing to work with us — towards a resolution so that we can get our property done and project off the ground.”