The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control granted a key approval to Conway Medical Center Tuesday as the local hospital system seeks to expand its footprint into Carolina Forest.
And Horry County officials are nearing an agreement with CMC to give the planned hospital, a 50-bed facility along International Drive, the local approval that it needs, too.
Together, that means CMC is merely weeks away from being able to break ground on the new facility that it hopes will serve the rapidly-growing Carolina Forest area, as well as the rural communities along Highways 90 and 905. Though the project has rankled some Carolina Forest residents who live near the hospital site and worried already-heavy traffic will worsen, Tuesday’s news makes it a near certainty that CMC will break ground on the project later this year.
CMC President and CEO Bret Barr announced the DHEC approval Tuesday, known as a Certificate of Need, and said he was “excited” to be able to move forward on the project.
“We have been waiting on that decision for almost a year so we’re extremely excited about the fact that we did receive final approval for 50 beds to be built in Carolina Forest in a new state-of-the-art facility,” Barr told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “We have worked very closely with the representatives of the residents from that area to alleviate any concerns that they may have on the particular piece of property that we would like to construct a hospital on.”
The facility that CMC hopes to construct will include services focused on women’s health, surgeries, emergency care, cancer care, orthopedics, and medical imaging. The 50 beds will include eight labor and delivery rooms, two C-section rooms, six ICU beds, three operating rooms and a six-bay infusion center. With DHEC’s approval, CMC will move the 50 beds from its flagship campus in Conway to Carolina Forest, and use the leftover space for other purposes, hospital officials have said.
CMC has also said the hospital would be one of the first hospitals designed to handle a pandemic, as well as environmental forces like forest fire smoke and flooding.
In addition to the DHEC approval, Barr, as well as Horry County Council member Johnny Vaught, said Tuesday that CMC and the county had made “good progress” on a development agreement that would allow the hospital to receive the local planning and zoning approval it needs in order to be built. CMC, the state Department of Natural Resources and Horry County officials have debated for months how best to alleviate concerns about wetlands, controlled burns at a nearby forest preserve and noise.
At first, CMC proposed situating the hospital in the Northwest corner of the 350-acre property, along International Drive. But that location drew concerns — and sternly-worded letters — from DNR officials, who said that controlled burns the agency conducts at the nearby Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve could flood the facility with smoke. DNR conducts controlled burns as a way to prevent uncontrollable forest fires in the area, and the fires also benefit the unique ecosystem within the preserve.
CMC then proposed situating the hospital in the Northeast corner of the property, further from the forest preserve but still along International Drive. That change didn’t assuage DNR’s concerns, though, and the agency sent another letter again outlining its concerns.
Then, CMC proposed situating the hospital in the Southeast corner of the lot, further from the forest preserve and International Drive, but closer to The Farm neighborhood in Carolina Forest. That proposal drew several residents of The Farm out to a county planning commission meeting to oppose the project, with some saying the noise and bright lights of a 24-7 hospital would disturb their peace at home.
Now, Barr said, CMC has arrived at a third compromise, situating the hospital in the middle of the property. Several wetlands streak through the lot, and Barr said Tuesday that the facility would be built on an uplands portion of the land towards the center, leaving buffers of 100 acres or more on either side. Those buffers, Barr said, would distance the facility from any smoke from a DNR controlled burn, and from residents at The Farm. Barr said the facility would also have an additional fire barrier around it for extra protection, in addition to a state-of-the-art HVAC system that would ensure no smoke enters the building.
As part of the development agreement, which Vaught, Barr, county planners and county attorneys have been working on, CMC is seeking to build a frontage road off of International Drive that would allow for access to the facility as well as a nearby Santee Cooper electrical substation. Horry County, as part of the agreement, is hoping to take ownership or control part of the wetlands on the property to preserve them. The county owns 3,700 acres of land adjacent to the hospital’s site, where it’s working to preserve wetlands as part of its RIDE 3 infrastructure program.
One sticking point still is a pair of gates along International Drive near the property that the county uses to close off access to the road when DNR conducts a controlled burn at the forest preserve. Barr said that he’d like to see those gates moved slightly West to allow for access to the hospital, but Vaught said CMC’s could simply go around the gates.
Still, Vaught said the county and CMC are getting “pretty close” to an agreement that would allow the plans for the hospital to go before county council and the Planning & Zoning Commission sometime in May.
“We should be seeing something out of it very soon,” Vaught said.
Barr said Tuesday that in addition to the state-of-the-art HVAC system to keep smoke out of the hospital, the parking lots and roadways in the facility would be constructed with previous pavement to allow water to soak through to the earth instead of running off the site. CMC would also seek to build the hospital to be LEED certified by using LED lights and other energy efficient and environmentally-friendly materials. To offset some of the costs associated with that type of construction, Barr said CMC would seek out monetary grants from groups that offer them.
Barr added that he’s confident the project will move forward, and is focused on doing it the right way: “I’m more interested in making sure everyone is happy with the outcome as opposed to rushing it through.”