The part of Johns Island that is outside the urban growth boundary is a patchwork of farms, woods, undeveloped land, estates and a few small subdivisions.
Developers wanting to encroach on the boundary might insist that the island is no longer rural, but it certainly looks and feels that way.
When the city of Charleston recently punctured that boundary to allow for a development at River and Plow Ground roads, Vic Rawl, one of the property owners and a member of Charleston County Council, said of the island’s rural character, “That ship sailed a long time ago. It sailed when Kiawah and Seabrook were developed.”
Indeed, Johns Island is a far cry from what it was when Mr. Rawl grew up. Back then, any traffic on Bohicket and River roads was mostly farm-related. It was best known as a place to buy vine-ripened tomatoes. And shopping for almost anything meant going to town.
Now some islanders complain about traffic going to and coming from Kiawah and Seabrook. Some modest riverside houses have been replaced by mansions. And in addition to tomato farms, there are horse farms.
But drive around the 70 percent of the island that isn’t inside the growth barrier and you’ll feel it: It’s rural.
Only 12,000 lots exist on the part of Johns Island that is outside the boundary — built on and not. The zoning allows one structure per eight acres.
The city made a mistake in piercing that growth boundary, suggesting that suburban development is inevitable. There is plenty of room for suburban and commercial development within the growth barrier on Johns Island — 10 square miles of vacant land as measured in 2010.
A coalition of people from Johns, James, Wadmalaw and, yes, Kiawah and Seabrook islands is dedicated to keeping rural Johns Island rural. (People often suggest that Kiawah and Seabrook residents care about Johns Island only as a way to get to Charleston. That’s another statement worthy of skepticism.)
The group, at present, is working to amend Charleston County zoning regulations to prevent planned unit developments (PUDs) in the rural area. The PUD designation typically allows for increased density, and has been used for the small amount of development done on the rural part of the island.
Pressure to develop Johns Island is not going away. The Beach Company has said it will proceed with developing Kiawah River Plantation, even though it failed to secure a TIF from the county. It plans to establish a new public service district to provide sewer services.
Even before that plan advances, people are asking whether nearby tracts of land can be served by that sewer system and thereby be developable.
Charleston County, the city of Charleston and residents of Johns and other islands will have to stand strong to keep sprawl at bay.
It won’t be easy. Some will continue to say it’s too late.
A big part of Johns Island is still rural — and it should stay that way.