Mount Pleasant has achieved significant relief from traffic congestion with the completion of major road projects, coinciding with a slowdown in residential development during the recent recession. But development is picking up again, and the town already has grown to more than 70,000 residents, making it the fourth most populous municipality in South Carolina.
Some Town Council candidates enthusiastically support new development and even want the town to cross the Wando River for more fertile fields to plow under.
But voters who remember the town’s traffic woes and who are concerned about the perennial school-overcrowding problem should pay particular attention to what the candidates are saying about growth issues.
Voters on Tuesday will choose four council members from eight candidates. Our picks are incumbent Elton Carrier, former councilman Gary Santos, and newcomers Ben Bryson and Joseph Wren.
A retired banker, Elton Carrier brings a wealth of financial experience to council as he seeks a second term. Serving as chairman of council’s finance committee and as a member of its economic development committee, he can be expected to encourage his colleagues to balance growth demands with a prudent fiscal approach.
He notes that the town’s reserve funds have been increased from $15 million to $21 million during Mayor Billy Swails’ term — a period in which Mr. Carrier provided leadership to council as finance committee chairman. Indeed, his primary goal on council is to “keep everything within reason” on fiscal policy.
Meanwhile, he says, the city needs to strike the right balance of residential and commercial growth, keeping in mind the persistent problem of school overcrowding. One project he’d like to see the city move forward is a second senior center in the northern part of town.
Joseph Wren, a small business owner, says the town needs to work harder at attracting economic development so that more young people growing up in Mount Pleasant will be able to live there after getting out of school. The town’s dependence on residential growth, he adds, “is not a sustainable economic plan.” That’s because taxes on owner-occupied dwellings alone don’t provide sufficient revenue for the town’s operation over the long term.
Mount Pleasant needs to concentrate on improvements in the northern area of the town, which continues to see the most development. Those should include extending Hungryneck Boulevard to Porcher’s Bluff.
But jumping the Wando River? Wren: “I don’t think so. We have a natural boundary.”
Like other candidates, he recognizes the importance of getting a second high school in the near term. And he insists that a new high school should be a bigger priority for the town than bringing a Francis Marion University satellite campus to town.
He says Town Council should provide a better “opportunity for the public to get involved” and, to that end, should schedule its committee meetings to maximize public participation. That should also include making available adequate meeting space to handle the large numbers of citizens who show up to hear council on a specific hot topic.
Mr. Wren recognizes what gives Mount Pleasant its individual character, and the importance of preserving it, as demonstrated by his work on behalf of the town’s Historic Commission and the Mount Pleasant Land Conservancy.
Balancing the demands of growth, fiscal responsibility and livability are a critical challenge.
“The next 10 years are vital,” and will “set the stage for generations to come,” he says.
Council will play an essential role in setting priorities.
“Let’s get some different faces.”
Ben Bryson wants council to focus on ways to encourage business relocation and top-flight office development to ease the town’s dependence on single-family residential growth. And he supports tax credits and zoning to encourage workforce housing to assist that economic development effort — as well as to provide more affordable housing for town police and firefighters.
The town needs to concentrate on encouraging in-fill development within the town limits, allowing for increased density to meet residential needs.
“I’m in the real estate business,” Mr. Bryson says, “but we’re going to manage this a little better on our density and growth.”
Existing development along Highway 41, and the need for a better evacuation route, should make widening the highway a priority. But the town shouldn’t think about expanding beyond the Wando River. “Our boundaries are already set,” he says.
The school district’s expansion plan “sounds good,” but the town should remain involved to ensure that it isn’t sidetracked.
Council and its committees need more meeting space to ensure citizen participation. Further, he says, those meetings need to be held in a single Town Hall location. Mr. Bryson should know. He has attended many council and committee meetings in recent months.
Additionally, he has extensive civic experience as a member of the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals and of the Charleston County Board of Assessment Appeals. He has previously served on the board of the Lowcountry Housing Trust and the Mount Pleasant Workforce Housing Advisory Committee. Ben Bryson can hit the ground running if elected to council.
Gary Santos previously served on council for three terms before losing his bid for mayor in 2009. He wants to get back on council to provide experienced direction on recreation and growth issues. He says the town faces a new wave of uncontrolled growth with the lifting of the development cap and the improved economy. The town needs to restrain growth that threatens to overwhelm public schools and outpace existing infrastructure. Impact fees on development would help ensure that residential development pays more of its way.
The town should concentrate on encouraging the development of professional offices for architects, engineers, lawyers and medical professionals, he says.
But Mr. Santos is concerned about the town’s emerging development on Coleman Boulevard, including new construction that he contends is out of scale with old Mount Pleasant. Council needs to consider scaling back additional plans, including a parking garage close to Shem Creek.
While unrestricted growth is Mr. Santos’ biggest concern, increasing recreation opportunities is his long-time passion.
Formerly chairman of council’s recreation committee, Santos was council’s strongest advocate for expanded facilities and activities.
He has continued that work as a private citizen and has been involved in a wide range of charitable activities, including in his business relationship with Carnival Cruise Lines.
Send this experienced and committed candidate back to council.