SUMMERVILLE — More than 200 people braved a torrential rainstorm Monday to lay out the key elements they wanted to see in a new development in the Charleston area's historic plantation district.
Sitting in several discussion groups in Summerville High School's gymnasium, they outlined their vision for Watson Hill, a 6,600-acre tract on two-lane S.C. Highway 61 near three plantations on the Ashley River.
MeadWestvaco, which recently bought the property from a lender who foreclosed on a developer, promised to come up with a new master plan that reflects what the public wants.
"We want the Watson Hill planning process to be open and transparent ... and community driven," Ken Seeger, president of MeadWestvaco's Community Development and Land Management Group, told the crowd.
Planners will present a preliminary master plan in about a month, and a final master plan could be ready this fall, Seeger said.
That could be the final chapter in a battle that started five years ago this month, when MeadWestvaco sold Watson Hill to a developer who planned up to 5,000 houses near the historic plantations.
The shock waves reverberated among historical and preservation advocates. The first house was never built as legal battles raged.
Those in attendance Monday hailed the meeting as the start of a new era for Watson Hill.
"This is a momentous occasion," Drayton Hall Executive Director George McDaniel said. "Watson Hill was a poster child of bad regional development. Now it could be the poster child for good regional development."
Not everybody agreed on all the details of a new plan, but there was widespread agreement on many broad strokes.
For instance, everybody agreed there should be no more traffic on S.C. Highway 61, a tree-lined, scenic road from Charleston to Magnolia Gardens, Drayton Hall and Middleton Place.
"What none of us want is for Highway 61 to end up being like Dorchester Road," said Buddy Wehman, who lives near Watson Hill.
Elaine Murray, who also lives in the area, wants to see some new roads linking the area to Charleston.
"I'd love to see the Glenn McConnell (Parkway) come through there," she said. She also urged planners to include stores and shops.
There was also broad support for preserving the wetlands and wide swaths of adjacent green space for wildlife.
"The ambiance of the property should be protected," conservationist Coy Johnston said, citing several adjacent properties that are under easements stipulating limited development.
He urged the company to put Watson Hill under a similar easement.
Many also said they wanted to see upscale houses on bigger lots to limit density, although a few were concerned about including more affordable housing.
There also was wide support for identifying and preserving historical sites and features. Brockington and Associates, historical consultants, are studying the site to learn the story behind the land.
Some pointed out that Watson Hill could become a regional attraction with historic sites and trails through the wetlands and woods.
Johnston and McDaniel urged planners to change the name to Wragg Baroney, an older name for the property.
"Watson Hill has gotten a lot of bad press," Johnston said.
McDaniel also urged MeadWestvaco to try to get the property out of North Charleston, which is in a legal battle over annexing it. Then the tract would be part of Dorchester County's historic-overlay district.
The district would allow almost 1,000 houses on the property, although it's not clear the public would support building that many houses there.
MeadWestvaco also is working on a master plan for the East Edisto tract, a wider swath that covers 75,000 acres from Watson Hill west to the Edisto River in both Dorchester and Charleston counties.
Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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