Meet the Gullah community that could be lost if the Hilton Head bridges get more lanes

If one more lane of traffic is added to the U.S. 278 bridge going onto Hilton Head Island, passing cars would splash water onto Isabelle Stewart’s front porch on a rainy day.

Nevermind the sound of 60,000 cars crossing the bridge, but the house her husband built and where she raised her children would open up directly onto a seven-lane highway.

A month ago, Hilton Head leaders met Isabelle’s son, John, to talk about the highway and what would happen if the S.C. Department of Transportation recommends the addition of lanes.

John, 54, said he doesn’t know how to talk to his mother about these possibilities.

“I don’t know how she’s going to take it,” he said Tuesday. “She just lost her husband. ... How’s she going to handle this road if it comes through?”

He paused to sigh.

“That’s where I’m at with my mom.”

The trunk of a towering pine tree sits about 25 feet from the shoulder of U.S. 278 in the front yard of Isabelle Stewart’s Hilton Head Island home. Drew Martin

The road is U.S. 278 — the only way on and off Hilton Head Island.

It once bisected the Stoney community where John grew up, and he’s worried that a new round of damage is about to happen again.

If SCDOT suggests adding lanes to the Hilton Head bridge, that would bring the concrete straight up to the Stewarts’ front porch.

If the department decides that’s not the best alternative for U.S. 278, other options may threaten Isabelle’s land anyway. Her family — and all the history in the house — would be displaced.

Next door, Belinda Stewart Young, 70, is facing the same problem.

Her mother’s home, which sits a little farther back than Isabelle’s, is already flooded with sound coming from the highway even in the middle of the day.

“There was a time where you could walk across this street,” Young said, referring to her childhood when U.S. 278 was only two lanes. “Now, you take your life into your hands just driving here.”

Young’s father was a native islander who died in 1995, and her 92-year-old mother is uncertain what will happen to the home where they raised their six children. Young’s four living brothers and sisters plan to return to the property when they retire.

“This is the place we’ll all end up,” Young said. “I already refer to this as home.”

The family had to replace its mailbox more than five times because speeding cars on the highway took it out, Young said.

Eventually, they just moved the mailbox closer to the house.

Belinda Stewart Young talks about how her family had to move their mailbox away from U.S. 278 because drivers kept hitting it. Drew Martin

Where the corridor project stands

On Wednesday, the one percent sales tax increase in Beaufort County went into effect.

One of the most stressful parts of living in the Stoney community right now is not knowing what that tax will fund in the coming years.

SCDOT is in the middle of an environmental study that will help project managers identify the “natural and human” environmental forces at play around U.S. 278.

The Stoney community hopes history is at the top of that list.

“While there are laws that provide robust protections for endangered species and important salt marsh ecosystems, those laws provide little, if any, protection for Gullah families,” according to Rikki Parker of the Coastal Conservation League.

The environmental study process is scheduled to finish up this summer.

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Town of Hilton Head Island Stoney area initiative plan, 2003. Released.

A public information meeting will be take place in the fall to present a group of alternatives to Hilton Head residents, according to the SCDOT project website.

The process eventually will result in a “preferred alternative” that will be subject to a public hearing in fall 2020.

If SCDOT suggests another lane, Young estimates it’ll come up to about 15 feet in front of her mother’s front door.

She said her mother will want to stay in her home, but it would be unlikely that the government will allow that.

Young said she worries her mother won’t be offered enough money for what her land is worth if the Town of Hilton Head Island tries to buy it.

“They’re going to take her land,” Young said.

Traffic on U.S. 278 barrels past the front yard of Isabelle Stewart’s home in the Stoney neighborhood of Hilton Head Island on Thursday morning. Drew Martin

Getting involved in the future of Stoney

Local leaders have looked to several sources for involvement in the U.S. 278 corridor project.

In November 2018, outgoing Mayor David Bennett and the Hilton Head Town Council voted to create a committee for citizen input on the project. That committee has three native islanders on it — one being Young’s cousin Sarah Stewart.

The committee meets nearly every week and has formed work groups to address the local effects of the corridor project.

They hope to have leverage when it comes to helping SCDOT project coordinator Craig Winn identify the best alternatives.

In his first newsletter about the project in March, Winn wrote that the goal of the project “is to increase capacity, with resulting improvements in mobility and traffic congestion.”

A driver waits for several minutes on Cora Lee Lane Thursday morning before he has a chance to merge onto U.S. 278 as rush hour traffic heads onto Hilton Head Island. Drew Martin

But increasing capacity isn’t what surrounding property owners want.

“Two more lanes isn’t going to solve the problem,” Young said as hundreds of cars whizzed by her family’s front door on Thursday. “I think it’s just going to make traffic worse.”

Once SCDOT decides on an alternative, they’ll need town council to sign off on it, according to Charles Cousins, assistant to the town manager.

Council members will rely on the work of the committee to help determine whether that option will work for locals.

“The cultural and social impacts clearly have an application to the native island area and the Stoney community,” Cousins said. “The committee will give input and guidance to the town council. ... We’ve got a group of citizens on our committee that are really taking this really seriously.”

In early March, Stoney citizens sent a collective letter to the members of the committee and identified major concerns with the project if it includes adding lanes to the bridge:

  1. Traffic: The letter says the community feels that simply adding another lane to the bridge will not improve congestion, and “many residents cannot access or leave their own property without running the risk of being involved in a fender bender or major traffic accident.”
  2. Flood control: As a low-lying area, community members said “any added pavement comes with increased stormwater runoff that may end up in our yards or flooding our homes.”
  3. Land taking: The letter is unequivocal in saying “no property owner in the Stoney area wants to have property taken for the benefit of this project.”
  4. Maintaining town-owned property: Residents believe that town-owned properties in the Stoney area “have been neglected for years.”

Although native islanders make jokes about participating in study after study related to their land, culture and preservation efforts, the community holds a sense of optimism about the project — at least on paper.

“We believe it is possible to replace the bridge, alleviate congestion and improve safety without taking our land,” the letter says.

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.