UPDATE: Horry County officials originally planned to meet with Conway Medical Center staff and state wildlife leaders Thursday, but county officials said that meeting has been rescheduled for next week.
Conway Medical Center’s plans for a Carolina Forest hospital will again be put on hold while county leaders and CMC staff try to address environmental concerns over the proposed location for the facility.
Horry County Council on Tuesday voted to defer any votes on CMC’s rezoning request until the council’s Feb. 2 meeting. The first of the three votes needed to approve the rezoning had been scheduled for Tuesday night. Instead, county officials said they plan to meet with CMC leaders to discuss the objections raised by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). That meeting was originally set for Thursday, but county officials said it has been rescheduled for next week.
“There are three different locations that that footprint [for the hospital could] actually sit on,” said Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught, who plans to be part of the discussion. “We’ve got to come up with one that satisfies everybody.”
Along with county staff and CMC leaders, Vaught hopes to have representatives from DNR and a nearby subdivision at the meeting. Residents of The Farm neighborhood have raised concerns about lights and noise from the hospital disrupting their tranquil neighborhood, and nearly 150 of them signed a petition opposing the project.
But the major hurdle comes from DNR, which has asked the county not to rezone the nearly 360-acre tract for the $161 million hospital. DNR has noted the wetlands-laden property is close to thousands of acres of public land that are periodically burned for habitat management.
DNR’s opposition raised red flags for council members because they are trying to establish a mitigation bank on a 3,707-acre property that is adjacent to the land being eyed for the 50-bed hospital. The county purchased the property in 2018 for $11 million. The county’s goal for its land is to restore wetlands there through controlled burns. That restoration would allow county leaders to earn mitigation credits, which they would need when they fill in wetlands while completing infrastructure projects.
RIDE III, the nearly $600 million roads package county voters approved in 2016, is expected to use those mitigation credits. If the county can’t secure the credits for the infrastructure projects from this land, the roads program could be delayed and the cost of buying outside credits could add tens of millions of dollars to the RIDE III price tag, according to county officials.
After DNR first criticized the hospital proposal in October, CMC redesigned the facility and moved it away from the mitigation bank site and closer to The Farm. But that sparked an outcry from neighbors. A third, more centrally located site is being considered now.
Although the county’s planning commission recommended that the council approve the rezoning for the hospital, county council members said they can’t do that unless they can guarantee that a supportive vote would not jeopardize the mitigation bank. DNR is one of the state and federal agencies involved in the mitigation bank approval process, and council members fear DNR could reject their proposal for the bank if they pass the hospital rezoning.
“That’s the ultimate [issue] as far as we’re concerned,” Vaught said.
Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner agreed.
"Why would we want to do that?" he said of placing the credits in jeopardy. "A hospital's good. Don't get me wrong. I'm for hospitals, medicine and doctors saving people. But time and place [are important]. … There's plenty of space. They could move it down the street a little bit. They could wait until these credits come to pass — if they're going to come to pass."
DNR has not said if the hospital would impact the bank's approval, though the agency remains opposed to the rezoning. On Tuesday, DNR spokesman David Lucas said the agency had not been asked to participate in Thursday’s meeting and he couldn’t say whether they would join that discussion without talking with the county.
Brian Argo, CMC’s chief financial officer, said hospital staff had planned to ask for a deferral on the rezoning anyway because one of its engineers, John Poston, is hospitalized with COVID-19 and another missed time dealing with a death in his family.
Argo said he was approached by the county about participating in further discussions and he said CMC would support those talks.
“We’re happy to engage all parties,” he said, “and work towards a productive rezoning request.”