‘Progress for who?’ Phillips Community opposes highway expansion project

Broken Ground podcast producer Paige Polk records Richard Habersham, president of the Phillips Community Association in Charleston County, South Carolina.

In the Phillips Community on the outskirts of Charleston, where there’s rain, there’s flooding.

“When I first moved here, it wasn’t a big problem,” says longtime resident Richard Habersham, whose property is now located in a flood zone, though its physical location hasn’t changed.

For details on the history of the Philliips Community and an extended interview with longtime resident Richard Habersham, listen to "Progress For Who?" an episode of SELC's Podcast Broken Ground.

Phillips Community residents, including Habersham, who are already working overtime to mitigate the effects of climate change and encroaching waters along with growing development pressures, are now fighting a proposal for a highway expansion that could push even more water into their neighborhood. A comment period is underway until September 11 so the public can weigh in on the plan.

Highway 41 is a major thoroughfare that connects areas in Mt. Pleasant, the formerly rural Charleston suburb where the Phillips Community lies, to Highway 17 and another growing county nearby. Some of the many environmental concerns from residents include the encroachment on wetlands, the effect on endangered species habitats, worsening air quality, and of course—flooding.

One of our concerns with Highway 41 and the expansion’s currently proposed route is that it could create a damming effect, causing even more water to be trapped in one side of the the Phillips Community and worsening their flooding problems.”

—Jenny Brennan, SELC Science and Policy Associate

But to account for projected increases in traffic and development, Charleston County wants to widen the highway along the roughly five-mile stretch that passes through Habersham’s neighborhood.

“One of our concerns with Highway 41 and the expansion’s currently proposed route is that it could create a damming effect, causing even more water to be trapped in one side of the the Phillips Community and worsening their flooding problems,” says Jenny Brennan, a science and policy associate in SELC’s Charleston office.

Before developers started building homes for some 160,000 incoming residents expected to concentrate mostly around the county’s rural edges, Brennan says the forested wetlands in the area combined with the previous stormwater retention system—basically a series of ditches—worked really well.

But over the last 30 years, Habersham’s community has been increasingly boxed in by new housing developments. And these new developments would be enough to change the character of any rural neighborhood, but there’s a bigger problem: They’re being built on undeveloped land, which is, in many cases, wetlands.

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Underlying the physical questions of construction, wetlands, and flooding, are the social questions. The Phillips community was started after the Civil War by formerly enslaved people who worked on nearby plantations. The initial construction of Highway 41 in the mid-1900s sliced right through their community. Now the same community is being asked to bear the burden brought by new development. Phillips residents are acutely aware of this imbalance since the other option to alleviate traffic, which officials didn’t choose, would expand roads through the new developments and leave the Phillips community alone.

“Why should I have to suffer because of that community?,” says Habersham. “They caused the problem.”

Habersham says if there were any environmental justice in this case, those building and moving into the newer subdivisions should have to plan accordingly for increased flooding and traffic.

“Look at what happened to us because they built those subdivisions,” he says. “If you have environmental justice, they would have had to keep all that water and traffic and everything in their neighborhood. …It wouldn’t be dumped on me.”

Adds Habersham, “There’s a double standard. When [wealthy] people need [environmental justice,] it’s a big thing. But when we need it, ‘Oh, you’re just stopping progress.’”

Advocates of the Highway 41 expansion have used the same argument, but Habersham questions the notion that its opponents, like himself, are trying to halt progress.

This is progress? Progress for who?”

—Richard Habersham

For more on the history of the Phillips community and the highway expansion its residents are fighting, listen to “Progress For Who,” available wherever you listen to SELC’s podcast Broken Ground.

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