The June 12 primary elections have significance for the Lowcountry, as we will be looking to fill seats at the national, state and county levels in this year’s election cycle. The Island Eye News posed six questions to our two candidates for County Council, District 2, which covers Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, Mount Pleasant south of 17 and east to McClellanville. Incumbent Dickie Schweers faces conservative newcomer Joe Bowers. Reprinted below are both candidates’ unedited answers to our inquiries. The IEN encourages residents to get out and vote.
- What can Charleston County Council do to proactively reduce the impact of the county’s growth on the beach communities of IOP, SI and FB, especially during the high season?
Bowers: County Council should better communicate and collaborate with not only IOP, SI, and FB but also all other municipalities to better manage growth across the county. Our current Councilman has failed us in this regard – with out-of-control growth and infrastructure far behind current needs under his watch. We need a Councilman committed to working with and building consensus amongst his peers on Council to put forth smart growth plans that ensure proper infrastructure is in place before growth, not just responding to problems.
Schweers: County Council can help manage tourism impacts on island residents during peak season by enhancing routes to and from the beaches with a focus on island residents. The IOP Connector intersections were improved for this purpose, and improvements to Ben Sawyer / Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant are in progress that could help. Also, county EMS units are strategically staged on the islands during high traffic congestion periods, and additional sheriff’s deputies are often dispatched. The bike and pedestrian path on the Ben Sawyer Causeway offers an alternative to automobile travel to reduce traffic. Designs have also been proposed to create a safe bike and pedestrian path across the IOP Connector, but challenges for that route remain. If safe bike travel is ever established on the James Island Connector, the county can pursue a similar solution for the IOP Connector. Parking management on the islands can mitigate both the volume of tourists and the interface between tourists and residents. I believe in a “residents first” approach, but those decisions are up to the individual beach governments. The county’s Transportation Sales Tax can be utilized to assist with the design and implementation of parking solutions. CARTA service can certainly be made available, but CARTA has been largely ineffective during beach season when attempted in the past. CARTA buses simply sit in the same traffic as everyone else.
- What do you see as appropriate uses of Greenbelt (sales tax) funds? As inappropriate?
Bowers: Greenbelt funds should be used for strategic sustainable conservation and creating public parks, trails and corridors. They should be used to ensure we protect the Lowcountry landscape that we all love to call home. Greenbelt funds should not be used on unsustainable projects like those involving extensive timbering and dirt mining, which I believe are not entirely sustainable and not true conservation.
Schweers: The 2004 Transportation Sales Tax was initially proposed with a singular goal of building more roads in the county to alleviate traffic congestion. Fortunately, some local leaders had the foresight to realize that simply relieving congestion would lead to rampant sprawl, and therefore, preservation of land in the outlying areas would be necessary to sustain any gains in traffic flow. This concept led to an emphasis on creating a greenbelt around the urban areas, and that emphasis should remain today. However, strategic opportunities for greenspace protection within the municipalities were also recognized, and funding was designated for municipal use based on population within each municipality. Although this worked well for the large municipalities, it presented challenges for the beach communities due to the low resident population and the high cost of land. Case by case compromises were established. For example, on Sullivan’s Island a more generous interpretation of allowed improvements to greenspace parcels was approved in order to utilize some additional allocated funding for passive use improvements. Inappropriate uses of Greenbelt funds have at times been requested and include projects where the intent of the applicant failed to meet a land preservation goal. Past proposals have included projects that would lead to the construction of buildings on a large portion of the property. The program is not intended to provide building lots for development.
- What is your takeaway from the current Wando Bridge I526 problem?
Bowers: We deserve better from our elected officials with infrastructure improvements. As Councilman, I will focus endlessly and work tirelessly to address the current infrastructure failures – first by ensuring existing roads and drainage are functioning at maximum capacity and then by offering and executing a long-term, proactive plan that ensures a sustainable infrastructure network for the future.
Schweers: The temporary failure of the Wando River Bridge has highlighted our inherent transportation vulnerabilities. Even grand, state of the art structures such as 526 can fail. Repeatedly over that last several decades development has expanded to consume all newly constructed traffic capacity and then continued until that capacity was far exceeded. This result introduces risks to residents. On Johns Island recently, for example, there is an opportunity to moderate growth to reduce risks to residents. Largely under the control of the City of Charleston, it remains to be seen whether this will occur. Alternatively, IOP and SI have finite development potential due to existing zoning and land use policies. These policies help mitigate the magnitude of infrastructure failures. In the event of hurricane threats which pose enhanced risks to critical transportation infrastructure, evacuation protocols, although a huge inconvenience to residents, have proven effective at protecting life safety.
- Is it time for the Tri-Counties to create better public transportation? Especially in the East Cooper area?
Bowers: Yes, improvements must be made to make public transportation in the Tri-Counties more effective in service and efficient in management. As Councilman, I would work to tackle the governance and funding sources of the transit system, which is currently not functional or sustainable. When sustainability is had in both governance and funding, I will work to expand services and truly achieve optimal service across the region.
Schweers: Successful public transportation east of the Cooper will require a culture change. I have always said, “I hate an empty CARTA bus – but I love a full one!” Unfortunately, buses east of the Cooper operate mostly empty. CARTA services can only be responsive to sustained demand from the local citizens. As much as many citizens wish CARTA was more successful east of the Cooper, until existing buses can be filled with happy riders, there is no business model argument for additional investment. Biking, walking, and golf cart opportunities are widely utilized within traditionally designed neighborhoods east of the Cooper. Areas with grid street patterns such as the Old Village, most of Sullivan’s Island, and some parts of IOP enjoy alternative modes of transportation for local trips. Sidewalks and pavement markings have enhanced these opportunities. In more highly urbanized areas such as the interstate corridors within the City of Charleston and the City of North Charleston, mass transit can play a role. We are at a mass transit tipping point along I-26, and I support the development of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system to help relieve gridlock in that area. City zoning and development along the immediate BRT route will likely contribute to its success or failure.
- We need to think again about the future, sea level rise is happening, we are having more and more storm related flooding events, what do you think we should start doing now in preparation for 10 years, 20 years and longer?
Bowers: The county needs to better communicate and coordinate not only with municipal elected officials but also and more importantly with constituents on the proactive plans in place and changes made in the future to ensure minimal impacts when such events occur. As Councilman, I will do as I have done as a school board member – communicate consistently with those I represent – on this and all other issues. Further, I will work with the county’s building and zoning codes to determine what improvements may be made to reduce impacts from such future events.
Schweers: To mitigate flooding from rising seas in the next several decades, I support an all-of-the-above approach depending on the specific area. For the Charleston peninsula, I support a “perimeter barrier and pump out” solution, parts of which are underway. For the Old Village, I support property specific, individualized solutions in conjunction with enhanced drainage systems. For the islands, I support beach renourishment and enhanced drainage systems. All will be very expensive. If flooding continues to increase at the current rates over the next century or more, retreat is probably the only option. Geological surveys show evidence that the coast of South Carolina was once in Columbia. We cannot protect against acts of God.
- Do you support banning certain plastic items in coastal communities? Should individual communities be able to decide?
Bowers: I am a firm believer in Home Rule. Thus, I believe such matters should be decided by each of the 17 municipalities in the county for their individual communities.
Schweers: I am a supporter of Home Rule. I believe higher governments should tread lightly in limiting the powers of the governments that most closely represent the people – typically town and city governments. I also believe in individual and property rights, but these rights are not without limits. In my opinion individuals have the right to do as they please as long as their actions do not negatively impact others. In those circumstances where the actions of individuals impact others, government has a responsibility and obligation to protect the public. The best government to do that, for better or for worse, is the most local government.