This evening, Mount Pleasant Town Council will vote on a monumental issue that may change the look and feel of the town forever. This vote on the town's Planning Commission recommendation to lower some building height limits in the scenic Shem Creek and Coleman Boulevard corridors will cast the die as to whether Mount Pleasant maintains its cozy coastal charm or begins to look like every other Southern boomtown suburb. The commission recommended reducing current 75-foot height allowances to 60 feet, and current 55-foot allowances to 50 feet.
?From the outside, the well-organized groups of citizens fighting for the lower building heights may look like locals not facing the realities of their growing, changing community that is now the ninth-fastest growing in the country. However, this issue did not become controversial in a vacuum. What is at stake tonight is as much about trust in their elected officials and their town's processes as it is about building heights.
?Plans for these two corridors have been on the books for years, as were some seemingly acceptable building height limitations close to scenic Shem Creek. Then the town entered into a joint venture with a non-resident developer to build a multi-story building at the corner of Coleman Boulevard and Mill Street. For reference, this is the vacant lot between the lighthouse on Shem Creek and the Mill Street intersection.
In this deal, the town promised to pay the developer more than $2.77 million over a term of 15 years in return for the developer granting access to 276 parking spaces, 132 spaces allocated for public use during the week as a pay-as-you-park provision, and full use after hours under the same provision - and on weekends in his multilevel garage with an office building on top. The developer had not submitted architectural drawings or specific plans at that point. Upon further review, the developer said in a July 2013 letter that the numbers of parking spaces didn't work unless the town planning committee would grant him a 10-foot height variance, to 55 feet, which they granted. Sight unseen.
In fact, the town submitted a text amendment for a special meeting for the parcel in September 2013 without any clarity or transparency, after knowing what was being represented by the developer and the planning committee back in July 2013. The Special Planning and Development Committee met and within 15 minutes approved the request of the developer to construct a 55-foot tall structure on this parcel which is contiguous to Shem Creek.
?However, the law does not allow such spot zoning for one parcel, so in order to make it legal, the council had agreed to automatically raise the height 10 feet for nine other nearby parcels of land. So what the townspeople thought was a 45-foot height limit near their iconic vista suddenly became 55 feet. With this kind of willy nilly approach, it's not hard to see why the townspeople are turned off by their elected officials telling them to trust the corridor plans that are in place. The mayor and others have also said they don't want Mount Pleasant to get the reputation of always changing the rules because that will hurt growth and investment.
?Well, the same goes for the citizens. The rules changed on them, too. What was a 45-foot maximum quickly became 55 feet. So the next variance becomes 65 feet, and on and on until Mount Pleasant looks like south Florida.
?There was a seminal moment during one of the recent town council meetings in which council chambers were packed by people trying to save Shem Creek and Coleman Boulevard. One council member asked why there was opposition to tall structures in these two corridors but not elsewhere in Mount Pleasant, such as along Johnnie Dodds Boulevard (Highway 17). To paraphrase Councilman Chris Nickels' response, "People don't drive visitors and guests out to Johnnie Dodds Boulevard to see multi-level buildings and big shopping centers, but they do drive them down Coleman Boulevard and to Shem Creek to enjoy the unique scenery." Shem Creek is to the residents of Mount Pleasant what White Point Garden is to the City of Charleston, so can you visualize this building in that location? Would there be any opposition? Exactly.
?An animated illustration of what Coleman Boulevard would look like under current height allowances offered by the Town's own GIS site can be seen on Saving Shem Creek's Facebook page. One look at that should convince anyone that it would be the makings of the next Orlando, Charlotte or Jacksonville.
?A look across the harbor at the historic district of Charleston demonstrates the value of a city preserving its unique, irreplaceable architecture and scenic corridors while allowing taller, modern structures in more appropriate areas. Last time I checked, real estate values in the protected areas were going drastically up, not down. Current prices prove there's no lack of investor enthusiasm for Charleston's historic district.
?Mount Pleasant has "grown up" with tall structures at the foot of the Ravenel Bridge, on Chuck Dawley Boulevard (new seven-story hotel), and in the business district along Highway 17. Buildings appropriate there are simply not compatible with the ambiance of Shem Creek and parts of Coleman Boulevard.
?Tonight's vote will decide if this boom town will grow up wisely and protect its unique places. It will also demonstrate who has the ear of Mount Pleasant Town Council - those who have recently invested here in hopes of making a profit, or constituents who have invested their lives in keeping Mount Pleasant, well, pleasant.
Will Haynie, a Mount Pleasant resident, is a columnist for the Moultrie News.