Developer seeks to fill wetlands
JOHNS ISLAND -- The long-running fight over a development planned near Angel Oak Park on Johns Island is moving into the federal arena, with the developer seeking a permit to fill several acres of wetlands that were just recently put under federal jurisdiction.
See the Army Corps wetlands permit information for the development
On one side of the issue is Robert DeMoura of CC&T Real Estate, whose plan to build several hundred apartments and three commercial buildings by the intersection of Maybank Highway and Bohicket Road is supported by the city of Charleston and Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care, which has a financial interest.
On the other side are activist Samantha Siegel of savetheangeloak.org, some of the nearby property owners and the Coastal Conservation League, which initially supported the development but more recently has worked with Siegel. The League also is attempting to buy a portion of the land from the developer.
The project has been through years of state and local review, and the issue now is whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should allow 3.4 acres of wetlands to be filled on the 42-acre site.
In December, at the urging of development opponents, the Corps reversed two prior rulings and declared that water from the wetlands regularly flows into a navigable waterway -- Church Creek -- in a decision that put those wetlands under federal jurisdiction through the Clean Water Act.
DeMoura said the Corps visited the site during a time of record- setting rainfall, but did not challenge the wetlands ruling, and instead sought the now-required federal permit.
The key to getting a wetlands permit is showing that there's no better option.
"Really, the heart of our process is an alternatives analysis, and looking at practicability," said Travis Hughes, chief of special projects, in the Corps' Regulatory Division.
In this case, DeMoura's company has proposed buying wetland mitigation credits to make up for filling the 3.4 acres. The Coastal Conservation League wants him to redesign the development to avoid the wetlands, and instead use some high ground closer to Angel Oak Park that had been set aside for conservation.
"It seems like a pretty easy solution to me, having him switch some of the open space area for the wetland," said Katie Zimmerman of the Coastal Conservation League.
Tim Keane, director of Charleston's Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability, said such a change would require the project to go through city zoning approval again.
"That would push them back ... and create another area of discussion and debate," said Keane, who worked as a consultant on the project while in private practice.
The 7-acre conservation area, along with a large buffer area around the 2.2-acre Angel Oak Park, are meant to protect the famed Angel Oak tree, a massive Live Oak rumored to be 1,400 years old.
The developer has proposed expanding the park into the new conservation area, so that the parking area is no longer on top of the tree's roots.
"It seems pretty amazing to me that they (the Coastal Conservation League) want me to use the conservation land, which is closer to the Angel Oak," DeMoura said. "For the last five years I've been working to minimize the impacts, and I think we have created a superior design that contributes a significant amount of conservation land around the Angel Oak."
Siegel and her supporters want no development whatsoever, and she said Friday that she opposes the idea of building in the conservation area.
"No part of the development is OK with me," Siegel said.
She's been rallying opponents of the development to submit comments on the wetlands permit issue to the Corps, telling opponents that filling the wetlands could harm the Angel Oak and "eliminate fishing and recreational activities" from Church Creek.
The wetlands in question include parts of a decommissioned sewage treatment facility, and they connect to Church Creek via a pipe under Maybank Highway. The pipe runs to a stormwater detention area behind a gas station, down a roadside ditch, through a pipe to another stormwater pond adjacent to an apartment complex, then through additional ditches to Church Creek.
"It definitely would have a big impact on fishing, crabbing -- we're talking about affecting the economy," Siegel said.
Keane said the city would not take a position on the wetlands issue, but continues to support the development. During Keane's first appointment running the city's planning department he helped create the zoning concepts that led to the development. His predecessor, Josh Martin, who is now director of land use for the Coastal Conservation League, further refined those plans.
"We remain steadfastly in support of it," Keane said. "The way to protect rural areas outside the urban growth boundary is to promote density within the boundary.
"There have been incredible amounts of effort, above and beyond, to protect the (Angel Oak) tree and even expand the park," he said.
Hughes said it could take three to 12 months for the Corps to reach a decision.
"We understand that we're in the spotlight," he said.