Conway Medical Center will have another month to ease the concerns of Horry County and state officials who raised questions about the environmental impact of the provider’s proposed Carolina Forest hospital.
CMC had asked the county’s planning commission for a favorable recommendation on their requested rezoning, which is needed to allow CMC to build a 50-bed facility on International Drive. But on Thursday, the same day CMC was scheduled to go before the commission, hospital officials said they wanted more time to meet with the county and the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Instead of voting on the $161 million project Thursday, the commission is now scheduled to take it up in December.
“We have quickly produced and distributed a new conceptual site plan for the proposed new hospital facility,” said Brian Argo, CMC’s chief financial officer, in a news release. “While we feel that this new plan addresses the concerns expressed by County staff, we acknowledge that there are additional concerns expressed by SCDNR that we have been unable to address due to time constraints. Therefore, we feel that this deferral will allow us additional time to communicate with SCDNR and discuss their concerns. We also hope to further develop our concepts for the property to provide a clearer understanding of this project and its relation to the community and lives that it will serve.”
CMC officials said they were surprised last week when DNR’s director sent a letter to the county planning department recommending that the county deny the rezoning request.
DNR’s objections stem from the agency’s management of the thousands of acres of conservation land in that area. When International Drive was extended from Carolina Forest to S.C. 90, adjustable barriers were installed on the road so traffic could be closed during controlled burns on the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, which is across from the proposed hospital site. That burning eliminates the shrubs and overgrowth to help prevent uncontrollable wildfires.
The site being considered for the hospital sits inside the gate on the Carolina Forest end of International. That means a controlled burn would close the road and access to the hospital. DNR officials also worry about smoke from the burning causing problems for the medical facility.
DNR leaders pointed out that Horry County owns a preserve that sits beside the proposed hospital site. DNR will eventually be burning there, too.
The agency’s letter, which was written by DNR Director Robert Boyles Jr., describes the state's efforts to protect the Carolina bays in the area and the unique plants and wildlife there, including the Venus flytrap, the red-cockaded woodpecker, black bear and bald eagle.
“While I understand and appreciate the need for medical facilities to meet the needs of a community, such a facility has other options, but there is only one Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve,” Boyles wrote.
After learning of the county and state concerns, CMC officials redesigned their plans for the hospital. They moved the location of the facility from the northern end of the property to the end closer to The Farm.
Initially, Argo said the move would impact more wetlands, possibly about 10 acres. But this week CMC officials said they could design a campus with “no wetlands encroachment impact because it follows the natural wetlands boundaries.”
“Much of the parking will be designed using environmentally-sensitive, permeable paving systems which will allow water to seep into the ground rather than wash away as surface runoff reducing erosion and increasing soil moisture content and replenishing groundwater systems,” CMC said in a release. “The campus location is situated on the property to use natural wetlands as a distance barrier to minimize smoke infiltration and wildfire vulnerability.”
CMC leaders said the new hospital would have a high-tech ventilation system to minimize smoke infiltration. They also touted other technology planned for the new facility.
“The hospital will be the first hospital in South Carolina, and one of only a very few in the world, to be designed from the ground up with a pandemic mode allowing for all patient rooms to function as infectious patient isolation rooms,” CMC said in a release. “Radiology, operating rooms, and the emergency department will include specific systems to allow for the isolation and treatment of infectious patients. The design includes anti-microbial touch surfaces and microbe-neutralizing air distribution systems.”
CMC leaders hope DNR will move the International Drive gate so the hospital could be accessible even if the road is closed for burning.
However, DNR leaders have stood by the position in the letter.
Along with DNR's concerns, county planning staff have noted that the rezoning would conflict with the county’s future land use plan, which calls for the area to remain scenic and conservation land.
“Since receiving concerns from County staff, we have worked diligently toward solutions to the potential conflicts identified,” Argo said in a prepared statement. “We were made aware of concerns regarding smoke from adjacent property burns, access gate locations and wetland impacts. We scheduled and attended multiple meetings with County staff and their consultants for the adjacent proposed wetland mitigation bank to collectively work on solutions to these concerns.”
David Schwerd, the county's director of planning and zoning, said county staff have met with CMC leaders twice in recent weeks to discuss the county's concerns.
"They're very well aware of them," he said. "That's why they redesigned their site. … Right now, we're basically waiting on setting up a meeting with SCDNR to address their issues because their issues are our issues."
A key question for county officials is whether they could set up a wetlands mitigation bank on more than 3,700 neighboring acres if the hospital is built. The bank would allow the county to earn credits to use on infrastructure projects.
"If we can't do the bank, that means we can't build any of the road projects," Schwerd said.
The planning commission's next meeting is set for Dec. 3. Once the commission makes a recommendation about the hospital rezoning, the request would go to Horry County Council for a final vote.