Photo by Ruta Smith

A massive, $1.75 billion project proposal to build a flood wall around a large portion of the Charleston peninsula, protecting vulnerable coastal land from rising sea levels, has been in the works since April 2020.

The project, proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), was recently updated as it moved into its next phase — determining if there is federal interest in the program. 

But some communities, particularly those in the Neck, are not being offered the same levels of protection. 

The proposed wall would wrap around the peninsula beginning north of the Wagener Terrace neighborhood, leaving low-income communities like Rosemont, Bridgeview Village and Four Mile vulnerable to floodwaters.

The sea wall lowers to ground-level at its stopping point, just short of the Neck. But they weren’t left out of the plan entirely.

Crowley

“They were highlighted for nonstructural elements,” said Jason Crowley, a senior program director with the Coastal Conservation League (CCL). “But we’ve been given no real clarity on what that looks like.” 

As part of the draft proposal, nonstructural measures could mean raising houses above flood-level, floodproofing other buildings or offering to buy out affected property owners altogether.

“That to me is a half-step measure,” Crowley said. “It’s kind of like pushing the fact they didn’t incorporate enough nature-based solutions. Just saying, ‘We’re going to raise all your houses’ — that’s not what the community is looking for.”

Some residents even took offense to the notion of property buyouts. Mary Johnson, resident of the tight-knit Rosemont community on the west side of the upper peninsula, said the idea of buying-up property isn’t a new one, and it isn’t one many of her neighbors are interested in. 

“Where are we supposed to go?” she said. “The flooding is bad everywhere, and the places that aren’t as bad are a lot less affordable places to live.” 

“My family has lived on the peninsula for years, and it seems like they just keep trying to push people further up and out,” said Rosemont resident Errin Hane. “We don’t want to leave, but I don’t know what else we can do.”

The lack of protection affects not only the residents of the community, but the infrastructure and potential futures of the areas as a whole.

“There’s such limited access in the Neck area already,” said Abi Lynn Angel, neighborhood president in Four Mile, tucked into a heavily industrialized area in the northern reaches of the peninsula. “The only option of transit is upper Meeting Street or King, and when it’s flooded, and it is all the time, it’s all the more restricted.” 

Four Mile, an area that Angel describes as up-and-coming, doesn’t have a lot of residential traffic as is, she said, and without flood protection and more pedestrian-forward development, it may never get to where it could be. 

And it isn’t just the Neck that could be left high and not-so dry. While the Maryville/Ashleyville community in West Ashley doesn’t see major flooding, neighborhood president Diane Hamilton said she’s concerned about how the area will be impacted if a wall is built around portions of the peninsula. “The water will have to go somewhere!” she said in an email to the City Paper.

Crowley chalks a lot of the issues up to the lack of community engagement throughout the early stages of the project proposal, particularly involving the Neck.

“The community just doesn’t know what’s going on well enough,” he said. “The Corps needs to spend more time up there to understand the risk, issues and possibilities. This is an area that has had an incredible amount of environmental damage and destruction. I-26 cut through it, the overpass project has caused more drainage issues, and the fact that Rosemont has the Magnolia development has excluded Rosemont fundamentally.”

The urban Magnolia development on the Neck is expected to include apartments, workspaces, shops, restaurants, parks and a public waterfront on the Ashley River, and it is expected to be completed in 2028.

The Army Corps did incorporate community engagement in its planning, but it came later than needed, Crowley said. And the engagement offered was done through methods that many in the Neck were unable to access, like virtual webinars.

“Nobody could do any in-person meetings due to the pandemic, and Rosemont has little access to some of the resources the Corps was relying on for engagement,” he said. “People have to go to the library to get computer access — it was closed.” 

Crowley said the Conservation League is pushing to have Rosemont, in particular, develop a community-led neighborhood resilience plan incorporated in future development proposals. 

“That’s what this community is warranted, due to the amount of disengagement and lack of attention paid to this area for so long.”