For months now, a key uncertainty has hung over Conway Medical Center’s efforts to build a new hospital in Carolina Forest: If CMC builds a hospital along International Drive, would a nearby nature preserve — and Horry County’s future mitigation bank — be harmed?

In letters, public comments and community meetings, residents, state officials and even some county planners have expressed concerns that the hospital could prevent the nature preserve and mitigation bank from conducting prescribed burns of the forestland, an important tool in maintaining the quality of that land.

The nature preserve — formally known as the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve — is pockmarked with Carolina Bays, impressions in the earth that foster one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet, including Venus Flytraps. Across the road, Horry County’s mitigation bank promises to be a similar preserve, and has added benefit of allowing the county to pursue its $600 million road-building program known as RIDE 3. Both swaths of land need to be controlled with regular controlled burns to prevent uncontrollable wildfires and benefit the plants and animals that live there, state officials and environmentalists say.

On Wednesday, Horry County’s new Planning Director, David Jordan, told residents and environmental advocates at a community meeting in Carolina Forest that the county has been working to assuage all of those worries by ensuring the mitigation bank is up and running first, and making CMC wait for final approval before another hospital can locate on International Drive.

“Conway Medical has…acquiesced, they’re not going to get a third reading for rezoning until the bank is done,” Jordan said.

Jordan explained that the county was continuing to work with Conway Medical Center in good faith on a development agreement and the hospital system’s rezoning request for the project, but that the county had made clear to CMC that if federal officials say a nearby hospital would harm the county’s mitigation bank, then CMC would have to locate elsewhere. That development agreement would set terms for where and under what conditions CMC can build the hospital on the 355 acre lot, give the county some of the land for it to use in conjunction with the neighboring mitigation bank, and outline where entrances, exits and frontage roads into the hospital will be.

“If the bank goes through, then they’re good,” Jordan said. “If (federal officials) come back and say, ‘You’re not getting the mitigation bank because of Conway Medical Center,’ they know they’re back on the street looking for a new property.”

The mitigation bank is essential to the county’s $600 million RIDE 3 road-building program, officials have said, because it allows them to preserve wetlands in exchange for other wetlands they’ll need to harm as they build new roads. Federal rules stemming from the Clean Water Act say, generally, that wetlands in the United States should be preserved, and that any wetlands that are harmed by development should be made up for. That’s allowed a system of mitigation banks to flourish in the country, in which developers and governments preserve wetlands in one area in order to make up for wetlands they harm elsewhere. For developers and governments that can’t or don’t want to establish their own mitigation banks, a system of mitigation credits has also arisen from those federal rules. A conglomerate of state and federal officials — including the Army Corp of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and, for South Carolina, the Department of Natural Resources — award mitigation credits if a mitigation bank meets their standards.

Horry County officials have said they’ll need between 1,500 and 2,000 mitigation credits to make up for the wetlands harmed as part of the RIDE 3 program. The 3,700 acre mitigation bank, though, could produce more credits, which the county could use for future road-building projects. That matters because mitigation credits are expensive — usually sold for $8,000 to $12,000 each. The county purchased the mitigation bank land for around $12 million, meaning that if the bank is approved, the worst-case-scenario for the county is that it breaks even cost-wise and is able to build out the RIDE 3 program. At best, the county will be left with hundreds of extra mitigation credits that it can use or sell, potentially worth millions.

Jordan said Wednesday that the county hopes to begin receiving feedback, and ultimately approval, of its mitigation bank sometime this summer. The county has previously submitted its application for the bank to the approval board and is waiting to begin the comment and response period that comes before an official approval.

Taken together, that means CMC could be left waiting for months until the County Council holds a final vote on its development agreement and rezoning request. A public hearing on those matters is scheduled for Tuesdays’ County Council meeting.

CMC’s planned hospital, first announced in early September, would include an emergency room and offer women’s health, surgical, cancer care, orthopedics, and imaging services. The $150 million project would include eight labor and delivery rooms and two C-section rooms for expecting mothers, six intensive care beds, three operating rooms and a six-bay infusion center. The 50 beds would be transferred from Conway Medical Center’s primary 210-bed facility in Conway. Bret Barr, CMC’s president and CEO, has said previously that CMC is still working on plans for what it will do with the freed-up space in its Conway hospital.

Allyson Floyd, a spokesperson for CMC, said Thursday that the hospital system is continuing to work with the county through the rezoning and development process.

Because the county is reliant on the mitigation bank approval process, it’s not yet clear when County Council could hold a final vote on the rezoning request and development agreement.

Where the project — and gate — stand

The land where CMC wishes to build is largely made up of wetlands, with four sections, or fingers, of higher-elevation “uplands.” The first two fingers are closer to the Eastern side of the property, and closest to the Carolina Forest neighborhood The Farm. The other two fingers are closer to the Western side of the property, and closest to the county’s mitigation bank. At present, CMC is planning to build the first phase of its hospital on the second finger of uplands, which is close to the middle of the property. In the future, CMC could expand the hospital and build on the first finger, closer to The Farm. If and when that expansion happens, CMC will be at least 800 feet away from the nearest homes.

According to the drafted development agreement between CMC and the county, the hospital would give fingers three and four of the uplands to the county. Jordan said Wednesday that finger number three would be used as a “lay down” area for heavy equipment that the county will need to use to prepare and work on its mitigation bank. Finger number four, at some point, could be used as a parking lot and entrance to the mitigation bank nature preserve. Members of the public could, in the future, be able to walk trails through the county’s mitigation bank, similar to how they can in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve across the road.

Another not-yet-resolved matter in the development is the location of road-closure gates the state Dept. of Natural Resources and the county uses to close International Drive during controlled burns. DNR officials have said closing those gates is essential to protect the public when DNR is conducting controlled burns at the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. But CMC, as well as residents of The Farm, have said they’d like to see the Eastern gate on International Drive moved further West. That would allow CMC to build a frontage road into the hospital that wouldn’t be too close to the homes in The Farm. But whether DNR would agree to move the gate is unclear.

In April, DNR Director Robert Boyles told The Sun News that he felt the agency and the county could work out an agreement on how far to move the Eastern gate.

“I think that’s a county decision,” Boyles said at the time. “The gates were there because smoke and traffic don’t always mix well, so that’s a public safety thing. We want to burn, we have a limited window in which we can, so those are things we can probably work out.”

But in a May 24 letter to county planners, DNR’s Lorianne Riggin, the director of the office of environmental programs, said that moving the gate would violate a prior agreement between the county and DNR.

“In order for (CMC to develop finger two)…the gates that protect the public from hazardous driving conditions and provide the public benefit of maintaining the sensitive resources at LOBHP with prescribed fire may have to be moved substantially defeating the purpose and the original agreed upon intent of the gates,” Riggin wrote.

Jordan said Wednesday that, along with CMC’s hospital, the county would delay a final decision on where the gate should be located until after its mitigation bank is approved.

“The order of preference would be the mitigation bank getting approved, the hospital getting approved and then where the gate ends up,” Jordan said. “We’re still on the first step which is the mitigation bank.”

Don’t harm the mitigation bank, local advocates say

At Wednesday’s community meeting, several local environmental advocates told both Jordan and CMC officials that they were concerned about the hospital’s potential impact on the county’s mitigation bank, which they support for both preservation and development purposes.

April O’Leary, who leads the anti-flooding advocacy group Horry County Rising, said that she wants to see the county’s mitigation bank get approved because that means both that the county has another nature preserve and that the county can pursue much-needed infrastructure projects.

“It’s our honey pot, it’s another natural resource that attracts tourists, brings in a lot of money and a lot of visitors for the county,” O’Leary said. “This is rare stuff you won’t see anywhere else in the world so it is really concerning, not mentioning the mitigation bank and the safety issues. We’re seeing a lot of really sensitive areas be developed and this one is really very critical.”

Protecting taxpayer dollars, too, was of great importance, O’Leary and others said.

“This is all tied to our RIDE 3 projects, the millions, we’re counting on this money, we’re going to need RIDE 4 projects, too,” O’Leary said, referring to the likelihood that Horry County will approve a fourth sales-tax-for-new-roads program in coming years. “So, I think wasting taxpayer money is a real concern for a lot of us, this has been going on for years.”

Sudie Thomas, another local advocate with Horry County Rising, said she was worried that if the county and DNR can’t conduct controlled burns at the mitigation bank site because of CMC’s hospital, the county could lose out on mitigation credits, meaning residents would have to wait even longer, or potentially pay higher taxes, for infrastructure projects they say are desperately needed.

“I’m just thinking the county might be worried about that if burning is limited,” Thomas said. “If they’re not able to burn, we kind of lose those (credits). For the county, it’s a lot of risk.”

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