Festival of Lights: Double-edged sword for neighbors

CHARLESTON COUNTY, SC (WCSC) - The 27th Annual Holiday Festival of Lights on James Island is in full swing, bringing in an expected 50,000 vehicles for the 2016-17 year.

The event brings a quarter of a million people to the James Island County Park, and although it's a beautiful sight to see, it causes a driving nightmare for those living nearby.

"The commute driving home is horrendous," Brooke Paronago said. "Every year we don't leave our house after we get home. We can't go anywhere from 5:30 p.m., 6 p.m. at night until at least 10 p.m."

Paronago lives close to the park and said during the busy light season she has to take off work early just to make it home before the traffic sits in.

"I've been leaving work earlier to make sure I get to daycare and elementary school so I'm home at a reasonable hour so they're not crying because they're sitting in the traffic," Paronago said.

Paronago said she moved to her current location to be close to the park, and still loves using the park, but just wishes there were alternate ways to deal with the holiday light traffic.

"We love the park and our dog goes there, our children go there and we see the lights every year but it's also it's just annoying," Paronago said.

With all of the traffic the Charleston County Parks and Recreation utilizes local law enforcement to assist in helping keep the traffic at a minimum.

"We meet with them months in advance and strategist what we want to do differently this year, what resources they have available," Gina Ellis-Strother with Charleston County Parks and Recreation said.

She said the law enforcement they do use also serves the festival and surrounding areas if an emergency were to occur.

"Law enforcement is well prepared and is part of our discussions with them to escort vehicles in the area. Not just the park but the neighborhoods that are affected so I feel we have a plan and we hope we never have to execute it," Ellis-Strother said.

Even with the enforcement assisting in directing traffic and at times reversing lanes, there is heavy congestion. Which causes concerns about the emergency vehicles making it to the neighborhoods that are affected.

""Two of the last five years I've lived here I've been pregnant," Paronago said. "So that's worried me if something awful were to happen and went into labor how would an ambulance get here. They can't go on the shoulder because there isn't one. There are some older people in our neighborhood as well so what would happen to them if they need a fire truck. I've been assured they will find a way to get here. That's what the police department said. But you just never know something bad happens and that's the risk that they're taking."

Paronago also said she and people living in her neighborhood have reached out to the Parks and Recreation to give alternate ways to ease the flow of outside traffic.

"Our community has got together and sent emails and called people, Charleston County Parks and Recreation, the Magistrate I mean everyone we can think of to get some sort of change," Paronago said, "I don't know if they should raise the price even more or make time slots for people who can buy a ticket ahead of time and only come at that time slot. I think there are other options but everyone kinda brushes us aside or pushes us aside."

"We try to work with them and certainly open to any ideas they may have for us to explore. It's sort of a community effort we're open to by any means," Ellis-Strother said. "We're definitely open to anything that can alleviate these concerns, it's just not an easy thing to resolve overnight."

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