Drivers on US 278 near the graves at Okatie cemetery

rlurye@islandpacket.comDecember 12, 2013 

A small Okatie cemetery is getting a lot more traffic these days.

The few dozen plots outside Indian Hill Baptist Church have always been well tended by the pastor, who lives in a white wooden house on the property. But with the recent widening of U.S. 278, westbound cars now flash within three feet of some headstones, leaving the church concerned for the safety of both drivers and the graves.

The S.C. Department of Transportation expanded the road about 9.6 feet toward the center median and about 2.4 feet toward the church, according to DOT program manager Brent Rewis. That left a strip of grass no wider than a church pew separating several headstones from pavement.

"When we came here, there was no road," said Pastor Doug Ludlam, whose church was founded in 1885. "The road just keeps infringing more and more upon us."

Engineers were aware of the road's proximity to the cemetery before the widening, Rewis said, but decided a couple of extra feet wouldn't matter.

"I don't think it makes a difference -- 2.4 feet from what they had prior to the widening," Rewis said.

Ludlam said he had not realized U.S. 278 would be expanding toward the church's property.

"Even before, there wasn't a safe place for people to pull off" the highway, he said. "So if they pull off now, they're going to be in our cemetery."

It's happened before. A driver smashed through the cemetery three years ago, Ludlam said. He took out a tree and a bush but somehow spared the headstones, which date back to 1886 and bear the names of historic Lowcountry families and Civil War soldiers.

Some markers became casualties of earlier wrecks, Ludlam said. The pastor said he's worried the shrinking shoulder will lead to more accidents.

Despite its modest size, the cemetery is still in use. The last burial was about four years ago, and many graves are decorated with flags or fresh flowers.

For now, the church has no plans to move the graves. While the church would like to build a guardrail to protect them, several gravestones nudge the property line, so there is no room for one.

Ludlam plans to contact the state about the issue, though he has not done so since construction ended in November.

He did, however, notify DOT when the paving of U.S. 278 created a 6-inch drop-off into the church's driveway. A crew arrived within two hours to fix that problem, Ludlam said.

He's less optimistic there will be recourse for the cemetery:

"The state can do what they want to do."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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