At 8 a.m. Thursday, Cathryn Zommer plans to meet a group of people in a James Island parking lot and walk down Maybank Highway to protest the removal of dozens of trees.

Zommer said she expects they will light candles, read poems "and just offer a prayer to the land."

That land, a 5-acre site next to Bethany United Methodist Church, is being cleared so construction can begin on a 280-unit apartment complex.

It's the first major development to be built under Charleston's Gathering Place zoning category, a new category designed to encourage more pedestrian, bicycling and public transit by allowing a denser mix of homes, shops and offices in certain centrally located suburban areas.

And the public's reaction ultimately could determine if this marks the beginning - or the beginning of the end - of a new kind of infill development originally intended to reduce sprawl at the metro area's edge.

Kendra Stewart, director of the College of Charleston's Joseph P. Riley Center for Livable Communities, said she's not surprised to see a backlash.

"People like a lot of policies in principle, but when it comes to the reality of how they play out, there's often a negative reaction," she said, "especially when it's in somebody's backyard."

A change in plan

The controversy over James Island's new apartments has been brewing for more than a decade.

Around 2000, a growing number of Lowcountry voters, conservationists and politicians grew concerned that the region's economic success and rapid growth would erode the very quality of life that drew people here in the first place.

In Charleston, the response came in the form of a new comprehensive plan that set outer limits, or a growth boundary, said Tim Keane, the city's director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability.

At the same time, recognizing growth was coming and had to go somewhere, City Council approved a new Gathering Place zoning that encouraged more development in vacant or under-used tracts already served by roads and water and sewer lines.

"The thing about the Gathering Place zoning is it sets these very strict design requirements, and then it also allows commercial, office and residential use and it doesn't have a density limit," he said. "On one hand, it requires a much more high-quality design, but on the other, you get more density and a greater mix of uses."

The new zoning change didn't make any immediate impact because few developers were able to take advantage of it. Keane said only the partial traffic circle at Bees Ferry Road and Glenn McConnell Parkway was affected.

"There's been a lot of planning and design work associated with these Gathering Places, but there hasn't been much built," he said.

Across the harbor

Charleston isn't alone as far as trying to channel new development toward its established, busy suburban corridors.

Mount Pleasant also passed a new sort of zoning - an overlay zone - for properties near its busiest streets, including Coleman, Ben Sawyer, Chuck Dawley and Johnnie Dodds boulevards. Again, this zoning allows more dense development and was designed to channel building back into the center of town, not toward Awendaw and the town's rural fringe.

But as two of the overlay's first projects took shape this year - The Boulevard apartments on Coleman and Earl's Court at Whilden and Hibbon streets - town leaders felt a similar backlash.

Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page said many people don't pay close attention to planning and zoning issues until they see something that gives them heartburn.

"People think everything is running well until something starts construction, and then it's 'Oh, we don't want that here,'" she said.

But Page said the recent outcry has an upside, fostering a public discussion about how the town's overlay zones can be improved.

"The issues we're looking at are parking, density and setbacks," she said. "We're addressing those issues in the corridor because of the concerns people had that it's too much."

In whose backyard?

Carol Jacobsen of James Island is among those who feel the new Maybank Highway apartments are out of place on the island.

"They're completely too large, too massive, too dense. This is a highway that was not designed for that," she said. "When these people move in, decide to all leave and go to work, what if the bridge is open? ... I can't see any good outcome."

Zommer, who lives on Cross Creek Lake right next to the apartment site, said she fears what will become of the herons, egrets, ducks, turtles and other wildlife found at the lake.

"I don't sense a balance," said Zommer, who moved there in June. "I understand gathering places and walking, and I think it's fantastic to have more activism for biking and alternative forms of transportation and creating community. ... I understand progress, and we have to have development, but all I can think to say is, 'Is there nothing sacred?' "

Keane said when the apartments are built, he thinks area residents "will be very pleasantly surprised by their appearance."

He said they will look like two-story buildings from Maybank, with the taller apartment buildings and parking structures stepped back from the highway.

"In some ways, the picture in everybody's mind is much worse than what it's actually going to be," he said.

Zommer said she isn't sure whether she will have two people or 100 at her protest Thursday morning, when the first trucks are expected to appear at the site. But she said she felt she had to do something beyond simply creating a Save Maybank Forest Facebook page.

"I feel like I'm late to the game with this one," she said.

The continued public reaction in Mount Pleasant and Charleston will determine whether those cities embrace or dilute this new zoning type, C of C's Stewart said.

That's particularly true in Charleston, which will elect a new mayor in two years, she said, adding that some candidates may attack the Gathering Place zoning directly.

Keane said he also isn't surprised by the anxiety the project has caused, but he hopes it will prove popular once it's built.

"So many people I've talked to really, really agree with the Gathering Place idea," Keane said. "It makes a lot of sense. They say, 'It sounds like good planning to me,' but the next thing they say is, 'But not here.' And it usually has to do with traffic."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.