Mount Pleasant rejects housing moratorium

Heavy, daily traffic is a common complaint in fast-growing Mount Pleasant. A proposal to halt new permits for residential construction, for 120 days, was defeated on Town Council Tuesday, July 12. (file/staff)

MOUNT PLEASANT — A divided Town Council narrowly rejected a 120-day moratorium on new residential construction permits Tuesday night, foreshadowing a larger fight to come about building permit restrictions.

The town has gained about 10,000 residents in the past five years and was the fastest-growing city east of the Mississippi River in 2015, according to the Census Bureau. Traffic problems and crowded schools, including the largest high school in South Carolina, have prompted calls to put the brakes on development.

Councilman Joe Bustos, who proposed the moratorium, told Mayor Linda Page: “If it’s voted down, then you have to wear the fact that you are asking the people of this town to be crowded, to have their children in crowded schools, to sit in traffic, and to maybe not be able to get out of town if there’s a hurricane.”

Page said Bustos, during years as a Mount Pleasant official, voted to approve developments such as the Oyster Point apartments and also must “wear” the result.

Had the moratorium been approved, permits would have been denied for residential construction projects that had not reached certain, but undefined, stages of approval. However, thousands of homes already permitted but not yet built could have gone forward.

Bustos said the goal of the moratorium was to give the town’s staff time to complete a review of development impact fees, which he and some others on council believe are too low, as well as housing affordability, and the possible reintroduction of limits on the number of building permits that would be issued each year.

Real estate and business groups have said restricting home construction would run counter to the idea of making homes more affordable, arguing that increasing the supply would decrease prices. Those who favor limits say that despite being among the fastest-growing cities in the nation, home prices and apartment rents have been rising rapidly.

In April, the council imposed a 180-day moratorium on new apartment development plans, and the idea of reintroducing broader limits on building permits has been discussed off and on for at least the past two years.

At the council meeting, some residents urged approval of further restrictions.

“We don’t need 180 days, we need two years,” said Barry Wolfe.

Another resident, Tom McLaughlin, said “The traffic right now if off-the-charts horrible,” noting the 5-mile drive to Town Hall took him more than half an hour.

On the other side of the issue, local attorney Gray Taylor, who handles commercial real estate cases, said it wouldn’t be fair for the town to require developers to annex land into the town in order to get access to public sewer service — a current town requirement — only to then tell the developers they can’t have building permits.

The vote on the residential construction moratorium was close, as expected. Bustos and council members aligned with the Save Shem Creek group often vote as a block, with Councilman Bob Brimmer often casting the deciding swing vote on the nine-member council.

“This seems to me to be a knee-jerk reaction,” Brimmer said of the proposed moratorium, which he described as “the nuclear option.”

The moratorium vote failed 4-5, supported by Bustos, Jim Owens, Will Haynie, and Gary Santos.

Owens, a real estate agent, said the town should also make better use of existing tools to regulate growth and development, such as planning and zoning.

“You’re right,” said Page, “we need to sharpen our tools, but let’s choose to govern.”

Later that evening, the council was scheduled to vote on annexing the Bulls Bay Golf Club, extending the town’s corporate limits closer to Awendaw.

Reach David Slade at (843) 937-5552 or twitter.com/DSladeNews.