Still seeking the blessing of state wildlife officials, Conway Medical Center leaders will wait until January to take their Carolina Forest hospital proposal to the Horry County Planning Commission.
CMC leaders had planned to make their case to the commission Thursday, but they opted for a second deferral — they were originally scheduled to present last month — so they could meet with state Department of Natural Resources staff to address DNR's environmental concerns about the $161 million project.
“Conway Medical Center and our architectural and engineering firm has done a really good job at redesigning and redeveloping that property to address those [concerns],” said Brian Argo, CMC’s chief financial officer, noting that he plans to meet with DNR officials within a week. “[We] feel really comfortable with our plans going forward on that property.”
In late October, CMC leaders quickly redrew their plans for the 50-bed hospital on International Drive after county planning staff and DNR officials raised questions about the impact of a medical center on the area’s wetlands. State officials have also highlighted the challenges of operating such a facility so close to thousands of acres that are periodically burned for wildfire control.
The tract being eyed for the hospital sits across the road from the 10,427-acre Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. It’s also adjacent to the 3,707-acre Independent Republic Heritage Preserve, which the county owns. There are plans for controlled burns on both of those properties.
DNR outlined its concerns in an Oct. 26 letter to the county. In the letter, DNR Director Robert Boyles Jr. asked that the county deny a rezoning request to accommodate the hospital. Boyles noted the state's efforts to protect the Carolina bays in that area and the unique plants and wildlife there, including the Venus flytrap, the red-cockaded woodpecker, bald eagle and black bear.
Boyles also pointed out that the proposed hospital site sits inside International Drive’s wildfire gates, which are lowered to close the road during controlled burns.
“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.
On Tuesday, DNR spokesman David Lucas confirmed that the agency’s position has not changed since Boyles’ letter was sent to the county.
CMC officials have proposed moving the gates to ensure access to the hospital. As part of their redesign, they shifted the location of the facility closer to the developed end of International, putting the hospital farther from the preserve land and creating a buffer. They designed an access road that would lead to both the hospital and Santee Cooper’s nearby substation.
As for the smoke, CMC reworked the hospital layout so the air intakes would not be on the side where burning would occur. Their engineers also researched other facilities with similar challenges and incorporated an enhanced air filtration system into the plans.
“The smoke and fire issues have all been addressed,” Argo said.
The deferral is the second and final one the planning commission allows. Argo said he’d rather push forward now, but he wants to work with DNR to reach an amicable resolution.
“I don’t like to punt,” he said. “Because it just prolongs what is ultimately the inevitable outcome. … But in this case, I think we can be good stewards to the county by continuing to facilitate constructive conversations with DNR, the county and us, the future landowner. I think it will give us time to bring all those parties to the table.”
Argo said he had hoped to meet with DNR sooner, but the scheduling didn't work out.
The planning commission’s first meeting of the new year is set for Jan. 7, according to the county’s website. Once the commission makes a recommendation on a rezoning request, the proposal goes to county council for a final decision.
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 site 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.
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.
Overall, Argo said he’s received positive feedback from the community about the project.
“Everybody’s really excited about getting a hospital in Carolina Forest,” he said.
CMC is one of two healthcare providers hoping to construct a hospital in The Forest. McLeod Health has also announced plans for a 48-bed hospital on its campus less than two miles away.
Both providers are seeking permission from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to build their hospitals. Providers must obtain a certificate of need (CON), meaning they have proven a facility is needed.
CMC could find out DHEC’s decision about its Carolina Forest facility later this month. If the state doesn’t consider the two hospital plans competing, the deadline for the decision on CMC's project is Dec. 26. However, the approval process allows competitors to challenge each other’s applications and McLeod is already opposing the CMC hospital, according to DHEC records.
As of Tuesday, Argo said he had not heard from DHEC about the Carolina Forest hospital project.