Advocates for developing 9,000 acres known as Cainhoy Plantation cleared a major hurdle when Charleston's planning commission approved a long-term development agreement that covers the rural Berkeley County tract. It passed over the objections of dozens of local residents, historians and preservationists.
Commission members, however, defended their support by saying the agreement ensures there will be public input, low-income housing available and protected open spaces for decades to come.
"By us doing something, it's better than what's in place now," commission member Sunday Lempesis said, referring to the current and almost wide-open zoning that's in place.
The vote was 6-1, with lone dissenter Elsie Davis-McFarland citing the community's opposition.
Thursday's decision came after more than 90 minutes of discussion, with members of the public speaking their minds. More than 130 people attended, taking up space in one of the city's smaller meeting rooms.
One of the most representative voices among those who were looking to slow down the process was local leader Fred Lincoln.
He fears the area, if wrongly developed, will become just like Daniel Island, with black residents who have lived there for generations being priced out by those with wealthier jobs, or by Northern transplants.
"I go on Daniel Island, I can't find a Southern accent," he told the commission of the lack of diversity that has taken hold.
Lincoln added that affordable housing to the residents of Cainhoy means owning their own land and property - not having to rent an apartment that a developer wants to build anew.
The development in question, within the city's Berkeley County boundaries, is expected to radically change how Charleston looks into the far decades, potentially creating a suburb larger than Daniel Island, or even the city's downtown peninsula.
The property, owned by descendents of the late businessman Harry Frank Guggenheim, essentially has no zoning at the moment, only a cap of 2.1 homes per acre. By some estimates, there could be as many as 40,000 residents in the coming decades.
Matt Sloan, president of the Daniel Island Company and who represents the Guggenheim family, said the developers have intentionally reached out to hundreds of members of the community to explain their concepts, schedule and ideas.
The zoning approval is needed now, he added, so the planning can go forward, including for the first round of neighborhoods and schools that Berkeley County leaders want.
Mayor Joe Riley appeared at the meeting to speak in favor of the plan, saying that in the agreement, 10 percent of the development area would go toward ensuring affordable housing.
The planned development calls for two fishing villages, one each near the Wando and Cooper rivers, commercial sites, offices and apartments along Clements Ferry Road, a light industrial zone along Cainhoy Road, two or more school sites, parks and other residential development. The current zoning only prohibits adult bookstores, junkyards and heavy industry.
Also supporting the zoning change were Berkeley County Councilman Tim Callanan and Charleston City Councilman Gary White.
But those opposed raised objections that the development plan still remains too vague, with not enough formal detailing put together on where roads will go or what will be done to protect historic buildings, cemeteries and scenic waterfront vistas.
"It's too important," said Robert Gurley, director of advocacy for the Preservation Society of Charleston. "It's too large. It's 9,000 acres," he added, saying critical areas within the site are not specifically protected by ordinance.
Another concern raised came from the BP Amoco Chemical Co, which operates a chemical manufacturing plant about a half-mile, by some estimates, away from the area to be developed.
"Simply stated, in our view it is not prudent to create residential development right next door to a chemical plant," Mark Fitts, plant manager of the Cooper River Plant said in a letter Thursday. The plant also sometimes does controlled fire burns in the area.
While more than 15 people spoke against the project, asking for it to be delayed, planning board chairman Frank McCann said it was wiser to pass the encompassing plan now, to prevent what could become a more haphazard approach under a less enlightened owner.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551