Too big for the beach?

  • Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ground has been broken for the new Sullivan’s Island Elementary School. PHOTO PROVIDED

Can you imagine taking the USS Yorktown and plopping it on the front beach of Sullivan’s Island? From my understanding, given the present design this is a good representation of how large the proposed Sullivan’s Island Elementary School is going to be.

I don’t think there is any question that people want a school on the island. I certainly can’t imagine the island without Sullivan’s Island Elementary School.

At issue is the proposed school’s size. A substantial number of island residents want a smaller school, one that fits more appropriately with the island’s character. The new school is to be 74,000 square feet. The old school, which apparently well-served its 339 students, was 35,000 square feet, less than half the size of the one now planned.

I’m flummoxed that a building of such a size and cost — $26 million and counting — could even begin to be considered on any barrier island, especially Sullivan’s Island. Apparently I’m not alone. From what I have gleaned as I’ve tried to get a grasp of how things progressed, when the size and scope of the school was finally made public, a substantial number of islanders signed a petition asking for a referendum, requesting that the school design be put to a vote. The petition was turned down by Sullivan’s Island’s Town Council as being defective and irrelevant. The upshot was that town council signed a new lease with the school board and plans steamed ahead for the school under its present design.

As I understand it, town council’s position is that the school comes under the heading of zoning and land use, things which should be decided by council’s administrative authority, not by the voting public. Moreover, since the school board holds the lease on the land, the town basically has no control over the school’s design. Sullivan’s Island Mayor Pro Tem Mike Perkis also has stated that building a smaller school would be “against state regulations” and if this design isn’t approved, the school board won’t build a school at all.

The school board’s reasoning for building such a large school is because the new school will be a partial magnet school, thus it needs to be large enough for 500 students, for the 200 extra kids who will be brought in from other parts of Charleston County.

This week the matter goes in front of a judge who will decide whether, legally, the citizens of Sullivan’s Island should be allowed a referendum. Those in favor of the referendum claim they have the right under state law to demand a vote. Town council avers that they don’t. They say that the overwhelming number of people on the island support the school’s design anyway.

All this is well and good and, hallelujah, we are watching our democracy at work. But I am still left with a plague of questions.

For one thing, town council states that the design is still in the planning stages and there are to be public meetings during the next two months for public input. This makes me pause and wonder. If the design is still open to change, then how come they’ve already started work on the building’s foundation? I was at the site last week and took the picture shown here. Maybe I’m wrong, but I didn’t think you could build a foundation without first knowing what the base was going to hold up. Sounds like a done deal to me. In fact, they say the school will be open in January 2014.

I also don’t understand how you can start construction on a building that will so greatly affect integral things like sewage and storm water runoff, not to mention increased traffic, without first doing the requisite impact studies. To my knowledge, no traffic study has been done. Bringing 200 extra students on and off the island daily is obviously going to affect traffic.

More to the point, there seems to be a question around where they are going to place the retention pond for sewage and storm-water drain-off. They say it will be on the school property. That in no way will it affect neighboring properties or “escape” into the Atlantic Ocean.

This astounds me. While I don’t know the exact specifications for a retention pond capable of serving a building of such massive size, I do know it won’t be a mere puddle. Maybe this is why half the playground space for the new school will be underneath the school building, not outside. But more to the point, how can a building plan be adopted without this very key ingredient already in place?

At least they won’t have to worry about filling the pond. Heck, you can’t dig much more than six feet on the island without hitting water.

I’m being perhaps a wee bit flippant about very serious stuff.

Several weeks ago, Post and Courier reporter Bo Peterson did an excellent article entitled “Looking for beach balance.” The article discussed how the viability of building on places like a barrier island beachfront is being addressed by a committee of state legislators. The committee is tackling the very difficult issues of how you build, where you build and the thorny issue of “should you build” in areas that are particularly fragile, especially when it comes to storm-driven wind and waters. As a barrier island with a long history of hurricane strikes, Sullivan’s Island definitely meets these qualifications.

This committee is addressing obvious environmental concerns and also the economic factors such as the governmental costs involved in rebuilding after storms and the drain on the federal flood insurance coffers (which, by the way, are some $18 billion in debt.) The committee’s recommendations will ultimately go to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, then to the state legislature for adoption.

In other words, while one segment of our government is addressing ways to intelligently curb inappropriate building on barrier islands, another governmental group is simultaneously going full-steam-ahead with plans to build an enormously expensive mega-school in an area which, very likely, could fall into a “no build” classification when these recommendations are adopted.

Kind of makes you wonder if the right hand knows what the left hand is doing. Whatever, our tax monies are paying for both.

Do we need a new school on the island? Absolutely. As many on both sides of this issue have stated, the elementary school is part of the fabric of the island community.

We need a school but we need to be smart about it. Bigger is not necessarily better in most cases. This is certainly true when it comes to such a small, fragile and historic stretch of land as Sullivan’s Island.


(Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.)

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