Horry County Government removed the Gardner Lacy Road extension from its plans for the Independent Republic Heritage Preserve.
But county officials insist the road project has not been abandoned.
When the county first bought 3,700 acres for the preserve in 2018, council members said the property’s primary purpose would be conservation. Restoring wetlands there could allow county leaders to earn mitigation credits. Local officials use those credits if they need to fill in wetlands while completing infrastructure projects, such as those in RIDE III, the nearly $600 million roads package county voters approved in 2016.
The property sits off International Drive on the opposite side of the road from the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.
Although mitigation credits were the central reason for purchasing the land, county officials also said they planned to use a small part of the property for building an extension of Gardner Lacy Road to International Drive.
Carolina Forest residents have long encouraged the county to extend that road, which runs beside Carolina Forest High School and connects with U.S. 501. They see Gardner Lacy as a critical outlet to alleviate traffic, particularly during school arrival and departure times.
When they initially submitted their plan for the mitigation bank — known as the Independent Republic Heritage Preserve — county leaders included a footprint for the road in their proposal.
But late last year, county officials cautioned that the state and federal agencies reviewing the proposal may require that the road be removed from the plan.
On March 30, the county sent in a revised proposal, one without Gardner Lacy Road, said Sean McBride, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The area for the proposed Gardner Lacy Road project is no longer part of the mitigation bank property,” McBride said in an email, noting the mitigation bank proposal is under review and no permit has been issued for the project.
The rest of the proposal calls for enhancing wetlands on the tract through a series of controlled burns and brush clearing. That will help eliminate the shrubs and overgrowth that choke out rare plants such as the Venus flytrap.
There’s also a five-year monitoring phase to ensure the project is effective.
If the project is cleared and all the work is completed, the property will be turned over to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and will be open to the public for biking and hiking.
Kelly Moore, a spokeswoman for Horry County Government, said the Gardner Lacy extension was removed from the proposal to help ensure the mitigation bank is approved.
“This would allow it to move forward through the permitting process with the Corps,” she said.
So what does that mean for the road’s future?
Rather than scrap the extension entirely, the county changed the boundary of the preserve, making it smaller.
Moore said the county has long had plans for extending Gardner Lacy and those haven’t changed. While the road has been removed from the bank proposal, the county still owns the property, meaning that at some point the extension could be built.
“The county is holding on to that area … for that possibility,” Moore said.
But if Gardner Lacy is ever extended and crosses wetlands, the county would need to obtain a separate permit for that work, according to the Corps. Another challenge? There is no money set aside for the extension and no timeline for the project.
“Right now, I don’t think anybody can point a finger towards the funding,” said Horry County Councilman Danny Hardee, whose district includes part of Gardner Lacy.
Still, Hardee said, with all the development in that area, traffic there needs another outlet besides U.S. 501.
“It’s got have some relief,” he said. “That’ll be a big step toward relieving some of that traffic.”
For some area residents, building the extension is not only about addressing traffic concerns, it's also about the county following through on its promises.
“That is one of the most important projects for Carolina Forest,” said Carole vanSicker, president of the Carolina Forest Civic Association. “This has been promised to the residents of Carolina Forest for over 15 years. … We expect our Horry County Council to live up to those commitments."
VanSickler, speaking for herself and not the association, pointed out that county officials are in discussions about building a new county government complex and possibly an additional police precinct in Carolina Forest.
“There’s no way they should open a fifth precinct without opening the additional route of Gardner Lacy to International Drive,” she said. “As much as we want a precinct here, how can you put a precinct on International Drive and not protect [the neighborhoods along Gardner Lacy]?”