The Megasite on Bells Highway
by The Press and Standard | August 8, 2019 5:00 pm
Last Updated: August 7, 2019 at 12:54 pm
While the county is continuing it efforts to attract manufacturing firms to Colleton County Commerce Center, the work to turn 1,468 acres of forested land off S.C. 64, a few miles west of I-95 exit 57, into an industrial park is still in its infancy.
The county has acquired 870 acres and has an option on the remaining acreage.
Unlike Colleton Commerce Center, which focuses on that industrial park’s proximity to I-95 as a selling point for potential industrial occupants, the Bells Highway site offers an available rail line (the former Hampton and Branchville tracks), that would be a selling point in discussions with potential industrial residents in what the county has entitled the “Mega Site.”
The discussion about developing an industrial park along the rail line’s path through Colleton County began shortly after South Carolina Electric and Gas announced in November of 2013 that it had taken the former Canadys Station coal-powered electrical plant out of service. The power plant closing resulted in the closing of the Hampton and Branchville Railroad, the railroad line that supplied the coal used to produce the electricity.
County officials saw the closing of the rail line as a detriment to their economic development work and began talking about purchasing the line, eventually buying Palmetto Railway, a rail development arm of the South Carolina Department of Commerce.
The plan was to have Colleton County Intermodal Corporation, a development entity formed by county government to work on the purchase, secure the $7.55 million purchase price through the issuing of bonds.
Then the developmental non-profit turned the rail line over to Palmetto Railways. Palmetto Railways then used revenue generated by the rail line’s operation to pay off the principal and interest on the bonds.
Since the purchase was completed approximately three years ago, Palmetto Rail has renamed the rail line Salkehatchie Railway.
Retaining the rail line was seen as a major enticement if other companies were to consider establishing operations at the former power plant site. South Carolina Electric and Gas began marketing the site to potential purchasers and that marketing continues now that South Carolina Electric and Gas has become Dominion Energy South Carolina.
Paul Fischer, a public affairs specialist with Dominion Energy South Carolina, said that the company is “actively pursuing a lease agreement for a portion of the former plant site, but due to the confidential nature of these discussions, no additional details are available.”
Moves by Palmetto Railways perhaps signal the likelihood of the power plant site having a new occupant.
Alex Clark, director of marketing and communications for the South Carolina Department of Commerce, said, “Recently there has been activity along the line, as a number of cross ties have been replaced, crossings repaired and new signage installed. Presently, the railroad right-of-way is being cleared of vegetation.”
Clark added that the work “is being done to expand our capacity for rail car storage.” Since taking over operation of the rail line, providing rail car storage has been the sole revenue generated by Salkehatchie Railroad.
The Colleton County Sheriff’s Office several weeks ago issued an advisory that new yield signs had been installed at each of the old railroad crossings in the county, advising motorists that they again needed to exercise caution when traveling over the rail lines.
But back to the Mega Site. As the plans to purchase of the former Hampton and Branchville Rail Company were progressing, the county was also working on establishing an industrial development site along the railroad’s path through Colleton County.
A group composed of the county, SouthernCarolina Alliance, the South Carolina Department of Commerce and the South Carolina Power Team began work on establishing the Mega Site.
The first step was putting together the $3.56 million that would enable the group to purchase the land from Rhodes LLC.
The South Carolina Department of Commerce provided $2 million of that amount. The county provided $566,000 and the other members of the Mega Site development partnership provided the final million.
Much of the initial permitting paperwork has been done including: Phase 1 Environmental, Preliminary Geotechnical Exploration, Endangered Species Survey, Cultural Resource Study and Wetlands Delineation and Mitigation.
Meeting the environmental requirements for both the purchased lane and land currently under option left the Mega Site with 951 acres of developable land.
Even though the area has been designated an industrial park, it remains untouched forest and wet lands. “No one has asked to see the site,” Colleton County Economic Alliance Executive Director Heyward Horton said.
The placing of a description of the site, including a map of the Mega Site, on the websites of Colleton County Economic Development and the SouthernCarolina Alliance has been the only marketing done. Horton said the map of the area shows buildings and baseball fields, rail spurs and roadways. It even has a test-driving course. Those items on the map are all fantasy — the mapmakers had to put something on the map.
“Right now, we are working on getting an easement on an abandoned rail line right of way,” Horton said. “It has been a slow process.”
If an easement can be obtained, the old rail line can then be used to install a sewer line between Walterboro and the Mega Site. Horton said after obtaining the right of way and having the sewer line designed, it would take about 18 months to have the line installed.
Providing water service to the site, Horton added, will not be a problem. Walterboro has a 10-inch water line that runs along Bells Highway at the site’s southern boundary.
As preparing the site to try and attract a business progresses, Horton said the next possible step could be seeking state funds to construct an access road onto the property and clear a possible development site to show businesses considering locating in Colleton County.
Most of the preliminary work on the Mega Site has been low key while officials negotiate the purchase of the abandoned railroad right of way that would contain the sewer line, said Colleton County Administrator Kevin Griffin.
Several weeks ago, county officials began hearing from neighbors of the Mega Site. When the county’s Planning Department conducted a series of meetings about the Comprehensive Plan the county’s planners put together every 10 years, the neighbors had questions.
Among those questions, Griffin said, were concerns that the county might attempt to take neighboring property through eminent domain or might be changing the zoning of their property.
Griffin was out of the office the week the calls started arriving. He said Horton, Administrative Services Director Meagan Utsey and Planning Director Zach Montgomery fielded the calls. Councilman Steve Murdaugh, Griffin added, also received some calls from concerned neighbors. Murdaugh, an attorney, “is well versed in how that works,” he added.
“I think it was all straightened out, all squared away,” Griffin said.