Some new developments are more controversial than others. The long-planned mixed-use Magnolia redevelopment north of Charleston’s Wagener Terrace neighborhood is one of the most popular. Highland Resources Inc./Provided Highland Resources Inc./Provided

SC - Editorial: 2 examples show why we need to (re)develop in the right place

Rapid development in the Charleston area, which some call overdevelopment, is by no means a new concern. But to get things right, government and the private sector must juggle a lot, including financial realities, voters’ wishes, property rights, infrastructure investment and sensitivity to the special character of our historical and environmental landscapes.

That’s a lot to digest, and it helps explain why so many of our region’s most hard-fought issues — Union Pier, Captain Sams Spit, Johns Island, East Cooper’s Republic tract, Watson Hill, etc. — become epic struggles in balancing private gain with the public good.

But two recent news stories illustrate why we should continue to press state and local officials to adopt policies that encourage new development investments inside our cities, in places we want, rather than at the edge of town.

A Nov. 5 article, “Charleston’s long-planned Magnolia project is a study in persistence,” explains how investors have worked for decades to clean up a polluted, 189-acre parcel along the Ashley River that has a toxic, industrial past. Business editor John McDermott recounted that property’s lengthy remediation journey and how developers and public interests collaborated, persisted and ultimately were able to ready the site for new offices, shops and homes. Johns Island native Caroline Freeman, now a director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s division that deals with Superfund sites across the South, presented an award for excellence in land reuse to the owner and developer for the $100 million cleanup job. “This is a win,” EPA senior adviser Rick Kessler said. “This is how we want to see the program work.”

Contrast that story with a Nov. 1 article about the ongoing headwinds faced by the Point Hope development on the Cainhoy peninsula, an area that’s home to endangered bats and woodpeckers but is being cleared to build thousands of new homes. The Cainhoy peninsula, a 9,000-acre expanse of undeveloped property, faces new scrutiny from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is concerned about the development’s impact on red-cockaded woodpeckers. It also faces scrutiny for its impact on the northern long-eared bat, and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit last year on behalf of three environmental groups that contend the Cainhoy plan violates not only the Endangered Species Acts but also the Clean Water Act. We can’t say for sure who is in the right, but obviously there is much concern locally about the future of this once-pristine part of Berkeley County.

Part of the problem is our state’s annexation laws, which allow large property owners to pit local governments against one another to get the most favorable development deal. The Cainhoy property is only one example; others include Watson Hill, Ridgeville and recent annexations by Ravenel. “This is unfortunately a common strategy,” Robby Maynor of the Coastal Conservation League tells us. “Local governments should establish land-use policies, beginning at the comprehensive planning stage, to promote development within existing boundaries, and not utilize the annexation of rural areas to promote development, which ends up being extremely costly to provide infrastructure, and also — as we are seeing with Cainhoy — often has negative impacts to the environment.” At a minimum, lawmakers should reform these annexation laws to require municipalities to explain how necessary infrastructure would be provided before there’s an annexation vote.

Of course, local governments need to make sure their own zoning encourages development where the community wants it (or at least finds it more acceptable) and where it doesn’t. That’s why the city of Charleston’s ongoing zoning rewrite is so important, as it is expected to guide future development away from more lower-lying, flood-prone sites and toward higher ground. Of course, as reporter Jonah Chester illustrated, Charleston’s new zoning — which could take effect as early as 2025 — still won’t work wonders, given that current property owners (including Cainhoy’s developers) have vested rights.

Local governments also could consider operating programs that allow property owners to transfer their development rights to encourage growth only within a designated growth area and discourage it beyond that point. Essentially, property owners in rural “sending areas” can put easements on their property that limit density of development and can sell or give those development rights to folks interested in developing property within the growth area. Beaufort County has led on this notion, but others should take note.

This is visionary work, and it will take time. But it’s necessary if we’re serious about making sure our region’s prosperity and growth won’t make our coastal communities unrecognizable in the decades to come.

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