Protect rural history from overdevelopment

  • Posted: Sunday, November 17, 2013 12:01 a.m., Updated: Monday, November 18, 2013 6:22 p.m.

Try to paint your downtown Charleston single house the “wrong” color, and you know what happens. The city has strong regulations to protect its architectural, cultural and historic integrity.

Except, apparently, as regards Cainhoy Plantation.

The 9,000-acre tract of land on the Wando River near Daniel Island is home to, or close to, Cainhoy Plantation Brickyard plantation house (c.1790); Cainhoy Plantation Sander’s house (c. 1790); St. Thomas-St. Denis Church; two brick kilns, possibly where John Bartlam made porcelain in the 18th century (a tea bowl of his recently sold at auction for $134,000); and several cemeteries. In 2000, the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation included Cainhoy on its list of 11 Most Endangered Places. Cainhoy Plantation is very likely home to other sites of historic and cultural significance, but documentation is scarce because access to the property has been limited.

Indeed, when the Historic Charleston Foundation was doing research to establish the Cooper River National Historic Register District, it included property all around but not including Cainhoy because researchers were not allowed to gather necessary information.

Despite those assets, the owner plans to build around 19,000 houses on the property, leaving only wetlands untouched.

It may happen because the city of Charleston in 1998 applied zoning to the property that essentially allows the owners (members of the Guggenheim family) to build what they wish where they wish. And the chickens are coming home to roost.

The city Planning Commission is scheduled to see the master plan for the area Wednesday.

Conservationists are alarmed, and let it be known clearly at the Preservation Society of Charleston’s membership meeting Thursday.

They see Cainhoy Plantation as similar to the ACE Basin in having a significant landscape. It is related to the rice planting culture and the enslaved people who worked them, and to freed African Americans and Reconstruction. Many of the bricks used in the construction of Charleston were made at Cainhoy. It is the site of the old Road to Calais, which ended at the water’s edge. Some granite road markers still stand on the site.

They see the master plan as misguided. For example, it includes industrial uses for the scenic two-lane Cainhoy Road. The site is adjacent to the historic St. Thomas-St. Denis Church. It is also just across the road from the Francis Marion Forest, meaning controlled burning, which is done to protect the forest, including its longleaf pine trees, would likely be disallowed.

Local preservationists and conservationists as well as community members would like to help ensure that any development is respectful of the area’s tangible and intangible assets. That means buildings and old road beds, and it also means symbols of religious tolerance and racial strife during Reconstruction. It means the rural nature of the property.

Unfortunately, the master plan was completed only last week, and they had almost no time to do needed research.

People who live in the area have had only one opportunity to hear about plans (before they were complete) and voice concerns. The next step after the Planning Commissions Charleston City Council.

But it is difficult even to determine what authority local government has over the property’s future. Critics contend the city has all but abrogated any such role.

The process is almost opposite from local precedents, which call for public input and careful scrutiny by the governing authority in order to preserve what is important and to protect the wider area.

No member of the Guggenheim family or family representative was present Thursday for the Preservation Society meeting to respond to concerns.

But surely the philanthropic-minded family would be interested in hearing informed opinions about damage that the development of Cainhoy could cause, and responding to them.

For decades the Guggenheim family, who made a fortune in mining and smelting, used Cainhoy Plantation for hunting and entertaining. Its 1935 house cost $250,000 to build — an eye-popping sum during the depression. It is still standing.

Some who know members of the family suggest they might be open to modifying their plan — perhaps even selling property in large tracts of 100 acres or granting conservation easements — instead of moving toward a sea of house lots.

At the very least the public, which will feel extreme impacts from what promises to be the largest development in Charleston, should have the time to consider what is being proposed and to speak to it. And the developers should be willing to respond point by point to the concerns that are being raised. The size and scope of this project are unprecedented and require a full public dialogue before advancing further.

The project would ultimately be the size of a small city. It should be handled with extreme care, and its irreplaceable historic, cultural and natural assets should be protected.

The fast track that it is taking precludes that from happening. Cainhoy Plantation needs to be pulled from city agendas until the public has had ample opportunity to study it, voice their opinions and hear back from the landowners.

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