MOUNT PLEASANT - Frustrations over development along Coleman Boulevard and Shem Creek boiled over Tuesday when Town Council members found themselves caught between residents protesting growth and developers defending property rights.
In recent months, residents have packed town meetings to rail against the town moving too fast with plans to urbanize Coleman without enough attention to preserving picturesque Shem Creek and the road that once was the town's unofficial Main Street.
However, a handful of developers and attorneys countered that the Council is damaging the town's reputation by making piecemeal changes to zoning rules and is putting itself at risk for litigation.
Developer Tex Small, whose plans to build an office building and parking garage near Shem Creek have drawn residents' ire, called his project the "poster child" for rules "changing every single month."
"I have to come down here the second Tuesday of every month to defend my property rights," Small said.
After months of hearing residents' concerns, council members echoed frustrations over constant calls to make changes to larger, long-approved plans. They agreed to two measures aimed at addressing the group of residents' concerns but rejected another:
Council voted 5-4 to ask its Planning Commission to look at lowering 75-foot height allowances on three sections of Coleman and adjacent properties. Council members Chris O'Neal, Chris Nickels, Gary Santos and Elton Carrier, along with Mayor Linda Page, voted in favor of sending the issue to the commission. Council members Mark Smith, Paul Garwych, Ken Glasson and Thomasena Stokes-Marshall voted no.
Smith cast the lone vote against new rules that will require the town's Commercial Design Review Board to review all commercial development plans. Smith, a funeral home business owner, said he has first-hand experience with building plans getting bogged down by layers of approval.
The review board holds public meetings to consider such issues as architecture and landscaping. Those meetings will provide residents more opportunity to see development plans and voice concerns earlier in the process. Today, developers can take their plans only to town staff if they choose.
The issue now goes to the Planning Commission.
Meanwhile, all but Santos voted against a move to have the Planning Commission review lowering 55-foot height allowances on several properties near Shem Creek where Small's planned building would sit.
Several council members asked when they should stop making changes to the town's larger urbanization plans.
For instance, the 75-foot height allowance on three sections of Coleman isn't new. Smith noted that height allowances in the area have changed so many times it resembles "a heartbeat-like graph since 1950." That makes it tough for property owners to make long-term plans.
Stokes-Marshall, the longest-serving council member, said the Council must look beyond every immediate complaint to see the town 10 or 20 years down the road.
"The fact is people love Mount Pleasant and are moving here in droves," she said. "We have to look at the big picture."
In 2008, Town Council altered zoning to encourage development along Coleman, in keeping with recommendations from the Coleman Revitalization Advisory Board, often called the CRAB. That citizens' board aimed to draw private development back to Coleman at a time when Towne Centre and northern Mount Pleasant were the hot centers of growth.
The resulting plan included allowing 75-foot buildings on three properties: Moultrie Plaza, Sea Island Shopping Center and The Boulevard, which has since been built at closer to 60 feet.
Carrier served on the CRAB and said much public input and planning went into its recommendations.
"These were good plans all along. We want to move forward," Carrier said. "We want Coleman to be a Main Street. It's going to be nice."
Garwych agreed: "We have gone through a vetted public process."
However, several councilmen and Page weren't in office when the CRAB report was issued. Nickels is among them, and now that The Boulevard offers a sense of scope, he agreed to re-examine the height allowance.
"The Boulevard is a significant structure," Nickels said. "I just don't believe anything should be larger on Coleman in the areas that we're talking about."
Glasson cautioned against making numerous knee-jerk changes to the larger plan to avoid unintended consequences. "Let's dial back and look at the plan. If it needs to be adjusted, let's adjust it."
Meanwhile, Town Council also approved a $87.9 million budget for next year, which includes an already approved property tax and fee increases to pay for a host of infrastructure projects.
The proposal marks a roughly 1 percent increase over the town's current total budget and includes new revenue from the area's growth along with a property tax increase, the first in more than two decades. It adds $36 to the annual bill on a $300,000 home.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.