South Carolina natural resources officials will decide Friday morning whether to set aside additional money for a proposed observation tower on the state’s highest mountain, realizing the total cost is more than 50 percent higher than initially budgeted.
The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) board will take up the $1.1 million Sassafras Mountain project at its Friday meeting. DNR says, when complete, the 15-foot-tall platform will offer a complete panorama view for visitors atop the mountain in Pickens County.
However, project manager Tom Swayngham said work was delayed after potential contractors returned bids higher much than the $770,000 DNR initially set aside.
“I think it’s just the business climate,” Swayngham told South Carolina Radio Network. “We’ve got all these construction companies with a lot of work. Plus, you’ve had a hurricane and a major flood the past two years that have added to their workloads.”
He added some of the costs were also higher than anticipated, including the challenge of getting heavy trucks and equipment up a remote, steep mountain road to the summit. Some changes were also needed to make the site more accessible to those with disabilities, he said.
DNR plans to re-dedicate Sassafras Mountain as a Heritage Trust Preserve to both offer it better protection from future development and to access from the Heritage Trust state program. Previously, the tower had been funded largely by donations.
Swayngham said the project needs to be approved quickly because harsh conditions atop the summit will prevent concrete being poured after October. He hopes the tower can open next spring.
“We’ve been frustrated by the timeline,” he said. “We hoped to do it a lot quicker than this. But we’ve run into a lot of administrative hurdles.”
If the DNR board signs off on the project, it will then be up to the State Fiscal Accountability Authority to approve the final changes.
Sassafras Mountain is located in a protected area along the North Carolina border just northeast of the Rocky Bottom community. It is remote by South Carolina standards, only accessible by a five-mile road which briefly crosses into North Carolina. The summit is about a 45-minute drive from the town of Pickens.
The site only recently became accessible to visitors. DNR bought much of the mountain from Duke Energy in 2004, but the actual highest point in South Carolina was nothing notable because trees blocked any potential view. Six years later, former North Carolina U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor donated nearly five acres on the summit where the tower will be built. DNR cleared trees from the mountaintop the next year, allowing visitors a view for the first time.