Expected flood of development launched regional planning effort

Cane Bay Plantation in Berkeley County already has thousands of residents, and could be home to 25,000 or more when completed. It was among the nation's top-selling master-planned communities in 2015, when this aerial photograph was taken. (Wade Spees/Staff)

A decade ago, during the housing boom before the recession, The Post and Courier reported that 135,000 homes were planned across the tri-county area — enough housing to support a 50 percent increase in the area’s population.

One reaction to that report was the launch of a multi-year, $1.5 million regional planning effort led by the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, called “Our Region, Our Plan.”

“This is the moment in time, this is it,” said Coastal Conservation League Director Dana Beach, when that planning effort began in 2008. “We will substantially determine the future of this community in this year. We’ll either cook our goose or not.”

There were public forums and surveys, a consultant was hired, a website was created, and Facebook page (which still exists and has netted 43 “likes”). Six years and one housing market meltdown later, the report was finished.

By then, some developments that were on the books in 2006 had faded away, victims of the Great Recession. Others had stalled, in some cases going through bankruptcy, only to regain momentum as the housing market revived. And many new developments had been proposed or permitted.

“Our Region, Our Plan” laid out a vision for the region through 2040, addressing everything from job creation to bike lanes, with some fanciful aspects, such as an imagined network of light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit lines.

Dorchester County Councilman Larry Hargett steered the “Our Region” process, and said the regional planning effort was worthwhile.

“I can tell you that it did have an impact in Dorchester County,” he said.

He said the plan influenced the East Edisto development and prompted legislation allowing for impact fees to help fund transportation projects and schools. Dorchester is the only county where public schools are allowed to collect an impact fee on new homes, though the state law allowing that is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.

Beach said the regional planning effort proved less definitive than he had predicted, in terms of cooking the region’s proverbial goose, or not. Large strides have been made in land conservation, but he said his organization is due more credit for the East Edisto conservation agreement than “Our Region, Our Plan.”

Kathryn Basha, planning director at the BCD Council of Governments, said most of the current wave of mega-developments were approved before the “Our Region” plan got under way.

The value of the plan today, she said, is that it helps guide local governments as they update their comprehensive land-use plans.

The plan can also play a role when developers seek changes to development agreements.

“As housing demands change, they often come back for adjustments to their plans,” she said, “and that’s a chance to make adjustments that better fit with regional plans.”

Even before the “Our Region” exercise began, tremendous growth was assuredly coming — already baked in the cake.

“Of these homes, 114,000, or about 85 percent, will be built beyond Interstate 526, creating more sprawl and increasing auto emissions,” the city of Charleston’s Green Committee warned in 2009.

Among the new wave of mega-developments, all but Magnolia are located beyond I-526, and most sit at the edges of the suburban metro area. The hope among regional planners is that those developments will function more like towns, with places to work and shop, rather than bedroom communities that will disgorge traffic onto the region’s strained highway network each morning.

“It’s really a matter of how self-contained they are,” Basha said.