More than a few residents of James Island and Folly Beach were surprised to see massive metal power line poles being erected on Folly Road over the course of the last month. The 80-foot-tall structures tower over the traditional wood poles, altering the appearance of the highway.
South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G) supplies power to the area. The poles will service a new substation at James Prioleau Road.
"The station meets the demands of a growing area," says SCE&G's Robin Montgomery, explaining that the bigger poles are needed to carry higher voltage transmission lines, rather than just the distribution lines that carry power to homes and businesses. "We look several years out as far as growth, on a yearly basis, to determine at what point we need to upgrade our system to make sure we can reliably and safely serve our customers."
The large poles are also more hurricane resistant and allow for the quick replacement of lines after a storm.
Although Montgomery stresses that the new substation was needed to relieve the current strain on the SCE&G station next to Wal-Mart, the expansion will also serve new developments like Grimball Farms, a 932-acre project that includes 227 houses and a golf course. Several townhome and condominium projects are also currently under construction near the beach on Folly Road.
Both the anticipated population boom and the new power lines concern many longtime residents of James Island's historic communities.
Mary Laurencin's family has lived on James Prioleau Road for over a century. The view from her back deck was once wooded; it now looks out at SCE&G's new substation.
"We have been fighting these people for a long time. We told them we really didn't want a substation," says Laurencin. "My concern is that it's not here to serve us, but to serve Folly Beach and the new development."
Laurencin worries that the raised elevation of the substation will cause storm runoff to flow into her backyard, creating a threat to her home during a major storm.
Before building the station and installing the lines, SCE&G received permits from Charleston County, the city of James Island, the Department of Health and Environmental Control, the state Department of Transportation (DOT), and the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Many of the new poles required obtaining right-of-ways from property owners along Folly Road. The company met on multiple occasions with community groups, addressing their concerns about the project. By request, SCE&G constructed a stucco wall around the plant and pointed the poles' "branches" that hold the lines out toward Folly Road.
Some of the affected homeowners are elderly and have pacemakers and they worry that high-voltage power lines could effect those devices. Laurencin says that the company assured them that the lines were no more dangerous than common household appliances.
James Island Town Council member Parris Williams is a member of the Grimball Area Improvement Association, a nonprofit that represents the community. He says that in some respects SCE&G did a "wonderful job." He's happy with the distance they kept between homes and the poles after DOT declined to relinquish their roadside right-of-way.
"A lot of things we asked for, they agreed to, like the fence around the station," says Williams. "They told us the truth from the get-go."
Still, Williams isn't overly excited about the changes. Both he and Laurencin say they weren't expecting the new poles to be so large.
"It's an eyesore that really changes the character of the area, but there's nothing that could be done about it," he says. "They bought the property. The town had already approved it, so all we could do was talk about it and that's it."
Williams hopes that a new collaboration between James Island, Folly Beach, the city of Charleston, DOT, and Charleston County will help to manage any future developments on the Folly Road corridor. They've formed a committee with the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (COG) that met in February and will reconvene on April 11 to begin establishing a comprehensive plan for the highway. The committee's purpose is to improve traffic flow to Folly Beach while providing safer and better pedestrian access. It may also play a role in what sort of developments are permitted.
"It's a shame that we didn't have this corridor project going and at least have considered that," says Jeff Burns, the COG's coordinator for the committee. "But if beside the road is SCE&G's right-of-way, it's a financial decision as well."
The Grimball Area Improvement Association is currently seeking federal nonprofit status, and groups like theirs and the Folly Road corridor committee will likely play a role in future developments in the area. Growth, however, isn't slowing to make time for community organization. For lifetime residents like Mary Laurencin, the changes just seem to accelerate.
"We don't want lines crossing our property and devaluating it," she says. "I can't afford to move, and I don't want to."