Horry County leaders on Tuesday began hammering out the framework for a development agreement that could help clear the way for the construction of a hospital in Carolina Forest.
Although few details about the potential deal have been released, the intent of the proposal is to give Conway Medical Center the zoning change it needs to build a 50-bed hospital on International Drive. A draft of the contract would go to the planning commission for review before coming to county council in late spring or early summer.
“We came to an agreement that we feel like will work,” said Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught, who met with CMC staff, county planning officials and state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) leaders Tuesday morning. “We’ve got to work out the details, of course. … It will be a totally new deal from what it was before.”
Last month, council members postponed a vote on rezoning a nearly 360-acre tract for the proposed $161 million hospital. County officials said they wanted to meet with neighbors and state wildlife officials who oppose the project to see if they could reach a compromise with hospital staff. Some leaders planned to vote on the rezoning Tuesday night, but the county didn’t even put the item on this week’s agenda because all the stakeholders were not able to discuss the issues surrounding the project until the morning of the council meeting.
At Tuesday’s discussion, the parties talked about halting the rezoning process. That would allow the county and CMC time to draft a development agreement that would specify the exact location of the project and any other considerations, including berms and buffers. If the agreement is approved by the council, the rezoning for the facility would be included as part of that deal.
“It was a productive meeting,” CMC Chief Financial Officer Brian Argo said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to working with them to bring this project to fruition for the people of Carolina Forest.”
During the Tuesday morning discussion, the parties talked about placing the hospital midway between a county-owned nature preserve and the end of the tract closest to The Farm subdivision.
Tina Flaherty, a 15-year resident of The Farm who participated in the conversation, said the meeting gave her additional insight.
“It was very informative,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.”
Residents of The Farm have raised concerns about potential light and noise pollution stemming from a new hospital.
Meanwhile, DNR has opposed the project since October. State wildlife officials have stressed that thousands of public acres in this area are periodically burned as part of the state’s land management practices. They maintain a hospital is incompatible with that type of activity.
In an email, DNR spokesman David Lucas confirmed the state agency participated in Tuesday’s discussion, but he reiterated that DNR’s position on this matter remains unchanged: the agency opposes the rezoning.
County leaders have expressed concerns about DNR’s objections. They fear that approving the hospital rezoning could jeopardize their plans to establish a what’s known as a wetlands mitigation bank on an adjacent tract. By restoring wetlands on that property, the county aims to earn credits that would be used to for infrastructure projects, specifically those in the county’s nearly $600 million road-building program.
The county purchased more than 3,700 acres for the bank in 2018. DNR is one of the agencies that evaluates mitigation bank proposals, and county leaders don’t want that organization to withhold support for their bank if they sign off on the hospital rezoning.
Jason Thompson, the manager of the county’s RIDE III road-building program, said local officials are preparing to submit their final paperwork for the mitigation bank approval, which could come as early as this summer. That approval is critical to the future of the program.
“Credits are not the drop-dead thing tomorrow, but it’s something that we’ve got to get in place,” he said. “[With] this rezoning, we need to work through all of the big picture down to the little picture to make sure that all parties are protected.”
Another factor in the discussion is that the property already has a residential zoning, raising the question of which is better: a hospital with a buffer or a sprawling development?
Vaught said he hopes every group's concerns can be addressed in the development agreement, which he would like to see in the hands of the planning commission by April.
“We’re not going to rezone the whole property," he said. "We will be working up a development agreement with Conway Medical Center to settle the different problems and the different issues with The Farm and with DNR.”
Even if the agreement is approved and the land is rezoned, CMC still faces a hurdle with another state agency: the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).
DHEC signs off on all new medical facilities in the state, issuing what’s known as a certificate of need. This program is designed to control healthcare costs and prevent the duplication of services, but it also allows providers to file appeals and challenge other organizations’ applications. That process can cause months or even years of delays.
So far, CMC’s hospital proposal has been opposed by Grand Strand Health, Tidelands Health and McLeod Health — and all three providers are trying to get their own hospital projects approved by DHEC.
A decision on CMC’s certificate of need for the Carolina Forest hospital is scheduled to arrive by March 27.