MOUNT PLEASANT - As some residents jam public meetings and rail on social media over a spate of new developments, this booming town's Planning Committee on Monday approved an effort to reinvigorate a board of citizens to examine design issues.
If approved by Town Council, new plans would need approval from its Commercial Development Design Review Board, an appointed seven-member body of residents. They hold public meetings to study issues, such as landscaping and architecture.
"The public has demanded a look at these projects, and I think we need to let them in," Councilman Elton Carrier said.
In recent months, residents have complained about various building plans, especially along Coleman Boulevard and Shem Creek. Most recently, residents on Long Point Road objected to plans for a grocery store, fast-food restaurants and nearly 200 apartments on a parcel near Interstate 526. (The developer has since withdrawn a request to annex, putting the matter on hold.)
"Citizens have made it known there is a desire for them to be more engaged in the process," Planning Committee Chairwoman Thomasena-Stokes Marshall said.
After Hurricane Hugo, the town created the Design Review Board to address subpar buildings popping up, Mayor Linda Page said.
When the recession hit, the town allowed developers to choose between going through the review board or town planners for approval to expedite the process. Not one has chosen the review board since.
Today, the town again is awash in development requests.
Councilman Mark Smith, a business owner, worried requiring review board approval would add bureaucracy.
"It does slow up the process," Smith said. "It's exactly why we made it optional. No one will convince me it isn't a layer of government, because it is."
Planning Director Christiane Farrell said that the review board won't add time to the process unless the board requires substantial changes.
"We're not hindering anything," Page added. "We're ensuring quality."
Councilman Chris Nickels said that if ensuring quality and conformity to town requirements slows some plans, "I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing."
Applications for design approval submitted before the ordinance passes, likely next month, would have until Dec. 31 to get staff approval. Any not completed or submitted after that would go to the review board. Economic development districts would be exempt.
Since talks arose, the town's Planning Department has been inundated with new submissions, some by developers wanting to beat the deadline. In July, the town received 17 submittals. A typical month runs six or fewer, Farrell said.
"It could crush the system under its own weight," Town Administrator Eric DeMoura said.
One of the town's more controversial developments, an office building and parking garage near Shem Creek, would not be affected. Developer Tex Small said he expects to receive final town approval shortly and break ground this fall.
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