CAMERON -- Hundreds of individuals across the state have petitioned the S.C. Department of Transportation to repair Church Camp Road and reopen it to traffic.
The road has been closed since the historic flood in October 2015, when the dam on the road was breached.
"The loss of the road not only affects local residents but also the safety of those who attend Camp Summers and Manget and Mount Carmel Baptist Church," said David Battle, the pastor at Cameron Southern Methodist Church.
"The closed road also affects the safety of community because it cuts off an important thoroughfare for the Cameron Fire Department,” he said.
A 1.5-mile stretch of the road near Cameron is closed from Cameron Road to Dwight Swamp Road due to the dam's failure.
Organizers have collected nearly 800 signatures from members of the Cameron community and people across the state on a petition asking the S.C. Department of Transportation to reopen the road to traffic.
The petition cites concerns about the lack of emergency access due to the road's closure.
"Since the road is out, the emergency crews have to go three miles through Dwight Swamp Road, which is a dirt road that crosses a creek without a bridge,” the petition says.
Emergency crews may also “go around on U.S. Highway 176, down Belleville Road and then turn onto Moorer Road to get to Church Camp Road. This route is more than nine miles of country roads,” it says.
The petition notes a number of church groups and others use Camp Summers and Manget throughout the year.
"During the summer, camps are held there for teens, pre-teens and 6-to-9 year olds," the petition states. "The camp has the capacity to house 122 individuals."
"We are very concerned that individuals, including children and senior adults, continue to attend the various events at Camp Summers and Manget while Church Camp Road is still closed," the petition continues.
Cameron Fire Department Chief Josh Hales said the road’s closure, “is increasing my response time in and out of the fire district."
Hales estimates the increase in response time is between eight minutes and ten minutes.
"Luckily, calls on that end are not high so we don't get there a ton," he said. "But it is affecting my ability to respond to calls."
Camp Summers and Manget Property Manager Woody Gregory says the camp has been blessed because there have been no life-threating incidents over the past three years.
"Praise the Lord," he said.
Some people are having difficulty finding the site.
"We tried changing signage to get people through the detours, but GPS has not been updated," he said. "They are getting lost and delayed."
Mount Carmel Baptist Church Pastor the Rev. Willie N. Waring said the road's closure is “rather devastating.”
"Members come from Elloree and come up through Four Holes and they usually come up through Cameron," he said. "Now they have to go all the way down Highway 6 to Belleville Road."
"I have been a pastor there for 34 years and this is the fourth time the road has been washed out," Waring said. "The past three times they fixed it with no problem. Now they have come up with an excuse that the dam belongs to a private landowner.
"The road doesn't belong to a private landowner."
SCDOT's Ashleigh Sandel, who oversees flood-impacted dam issues, said the main reason work has not been done is that public records indicate the dam is privately owned.
Work can't be done on the road until the dam is repaired, she said.
"We can't repair a private thing with public money," Sandel said. "We have been trying to work with the dam owner to come to a solution, but the dam owner has not been responsive."
Sandel said SCDOT is looking at building a new roadway and shifting the alignment of Church Camp Road “a little bit so we aren't over the pond and stream.”
"The DOT is procuring a consultant to do that design," Sandel said. An environmental impact study will have to be done due to the pond being in the area.
"It will be a few years before you see any kind of construction going on," Sandel said. "I would say it will take two years to go through the environmental process."
When asked why the condemnation process is not used, Sandel said at the state has decided not to resort to the condemnation process at this point in time.
Church Camp Road is not the only route still closed due to the historic flood.
Community Club Road from S.C. Highway 6 to McCords Ferry Road also remains closed.
SCDOT has gotten approval from that dam's owner to proceed to fix the road.
A long-standing issue
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The road's closure has been a matter of concern for quite some time.
County leaders in August 2017 called for SCDOT to fix the road, but SCDOT has noted it does not own the dam and does not have the right-of-way to fix the dam.
SCDOT says the road cannot be fixed until the dam is repaired by the owners.
Typically road and bridge repairs can begin once the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control certifies a dam is being repaired or abandoned. DHEC is the regulatory agency for dams in the state.
Shortly after the flood, DHEC issued a directive letter to the owner requiring an engineered assessment of the dam.
"An attorney working on behalf of the owners requested an exemption from regulation," DHEC spokeswoman Erica Knight said. "DHEC staff reviewed the request and concurred that it met one of the exemptions specified in the regulation."
In September 2016, DHEC granted the dam exemption from further regulation under the state dam safety program.
"Since this is no longer a regulated dam, the Department has not tracked the progress of repairs to the dam," Knight said. "Since this is no longer a regulated dam, if the owners choose to rebuild, they will not need a permit from DHEC to do so. DHEC is available to provide guidance if requested."
'Sorry as hell'
Calhoun County Council Chairman David Summers says the excuse provided by SCDOT for not fixing the dam is not a valid one, describing the highway department as “sorry as hell.”
Summers says the state of South Carolina owns the dam, not the person the state claims is the owner.
"He comes up to it but he does not own the dam,” Summers said.
"The pipe is still down there and it needs some patching around the pipe," he said. "They try to over-engineer something and it doesn't need that. Just fix the road and don't try to over engineer it."
Summers said the road does not need much work.
"We just don't have the engineers we used to have over there," he said. "They used to go out of their way to get something done."
Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, has made the road and dam issue a priority for the past three years.
He first introduced legislation in 2016 to address the dam issues across the state.
Statewide, the flood took out 26 dams. Today, 12 roads are still closed due to dam failures during the storm.
Under that bill, which did not become law, owners of the dams would have been given a deadline to tell the state whether or when they plan to rebuild.
The bill would also have given the state transportation department the power to repair roads, possibly by installing a bridge over a waterway, if a private dam owner does not plan to rebuild.
Last year, Ott introduced a bill that would direct SCDOT to proceed with the repairs either by using the rights-of-way or easements available or to acquire the rights-of-way or easements.
The bill did not pass out of the House.
"We are back to square one, which I think is unacceptable," he said. "It is unfortunate that we in the General Assembly have not taken the action to address these dams in the last three years."
The hold up? Money.
"This past year, some folks’ concerns were that we were going to spend a rather large amount of money to fix the dams," Ott said. "They said we have a ranking criteria and we should continue to follow the criteria. My response is that this was a natural disaster. This is something you don't expect to happen."
SCDOT estimates the bill would cost approximately $4.5 million in the 2018-19 fiscal year to repair the remaining thirteen roads and dams that were impacted by the flood, according to Frank A. Rainwater, S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office executive director.
"This estimate assumes the worst-case scenario by which DOT will breach the dams and will need to rebuild roads," Rainwater informed the General Assembly in February. "The estimate was based on previous road repairs made to other dam locations that were impacted by the 2015 flood."
"However, expenses are dependent upon the scope of work associated with each affected road and dam," Rainwater continued. "The thirteen roads and dams are currently not on DOT's prioritized list. Therefore, funds used to repair these roads and dams would delay other prioritized projects."
Ott said he is all for private property rights, but he says the ability of a private landowner to hold up access to a public road for three years is not right and should not be open ended.
"SCDOT has taken a position they will not condemn the property without the permission of the property owner," Ott said. "They do have the ability to condemn the property in that manner."
"I am not going to give up and quit on this issue," Ott said. "I am committed to working with Calhoun County and council to work to get this thing done."
Ott said Calhoun County could take the road over from the state and fix the dam itself but he says that is a financial burden the county does not need and should not have.
"That is not their responsibility as this is a state road and should be the responsibility of the state," Ott said. "I will continue to be a thorn in the side of the DOT until we get some acceptable answer. It has risen to the level of ridiculous at this point."
Hales echoed the sentiment of many when asked about his desires to have the road fixed and open.
"We can only hope," he said.