At 11 locations across the tri-county Charleston metro area, a wave of town-size developments could create new houses and apartments for nearly 200,000 people.
That’s enough housing for the current population of both North Charleston and Mount Pleasant, which are South Carolina’s third- and fourth-largest cities.
The scale of these super-size developments, and the demands they will put on public services, already are influencing where schools get built, which roads get widened, and the location of fire departments and even highway interchanges.
And some of these developments haven’t built the first house.
The greater Charleston area has seen large developments before, but never so many at once — and rarely so large.
When the Sangaree development was announced in Berkeley County in 1973, the 3,000-home community was among the nation’s largest. Today, it would rank among the smallest of the mega-developments, which average more than 7,000 permitted homes.
Just across U.S. Highway 17A from Sangaree is Nexton, permitted for more than 13,000 homes. Carnes Crossroads, just down road, could have more than 5,000. Cane Bay Plantation, also nearby, will have about 10,000. And Wildcat, next door to Cane Bay, is permitted for 5,778.
Cainhoy Plantation, above Daniel Island across the Wando River from Mount Pleasant, is approved for more than 18,000 homes. Summers Corner, on the rural outskirts of Summerville, will have about 6,000. Ingleside, in North Charleston, is approved for 5,425. And the list goes on.
These mega-developments have all been approved and have contractual agreements with local governments lasting as long as 50 years. These agreements insulate developers from future rule changes, such as those seen recently in Mount Pleasant, where the Town Council reduced allowed building heights and the number of apartments permitted in some developments.
“A development agreement gives a developer predictability so that they can invest large amounts of money with a long-term payback,” said Kenneth Seeger, president of WestRock Land and Development, the region’s largest mega-developer. “It does give you insulation from reactionary swings in local government that can happen.”
WestRock, the successor to MeadWestvaco, is the developer of four of the 11 mega-developments: Nexton, Summers Corner, Spring Grove and Magnolia. The Daniel Island Co., known for the 6,500-home development of Daniel Island, is in charge of two of the new mega-developments, Cainhoy Plantation and Carnes Crossroads.
“People are coming here,” said Daniel Island Co. President Matt Sloan. “I think master-planned communities are a good thing for this region.”
Sloan said one reason Carnes Crossroads was annexed into Goose Creek was the city’s willingness to put a “unique zoning code” modeled after Daniel Island into a development agreement.
Development agreements can be changed, if both sides agree and public hearings are held. The agreement for Daniel Island — not counted among the 11 mega-developments because it’s mostly completed — was changed three times with the city of Charleston’s blessing, once to accommodate what is now the Volvo Car Stadium.
The plan for 2,030-home Carolina Park in Mount Pleasant also was amended, for example, in 2014 after a bald eagle nest was found. The change created a park around the nest, and shifted multi-family housing to another part of the property.
For those concerned that the Charleston area is growing too fast, becoming too crowded and choked with traffic, the news that just the 11 largest developments in the area could bring 78,000 more homes may be unwelcome.
The silver lining is, urban planners and environmental activists generally agree that large master-planned communities are preferable to multiple, smaller developments.
Christiane Farrell, director of Planning and Development for Mount Pleasant, said well-connected roads, parks and recreation centers can be more easily achieved when large developments are planned.
“The same thing with drainage and open space,” she said.
Smaller developments might include homes and an amenity center. Mega-developments — those with 2,000 homes or more — often include schools, public parks and recreation, and commercial areas with shopping, restaurants and sometimes offices. Nexton includes an office building and a hotel.
“You have the ability to integrate schools and shopping, and create more of a community,” Farrell said.
It’s now common for public schools to be built in mega-developments, on land sold or donated by the developers. Cane Bay Plantation, Nexton, Summers Corner and Cainhoy Plantation are all examples.
“We decided to donate the land to the schools before we ever wrote the development agreement,” said Kelly Seger, spokeswoman for Cane Bay Plantation developer Gramling Brothers.
In Mount Pleasant, the town’s only public high school sits at the entrance road to Carolina Park. In Charleston, the only public high school on the Cainhoy peninsula and Daniel Island is now under construction within the Cainhoy Plantation development.
School districts want to build near population centers — particularly if the land is free, or sold at a discount. Developers, in turn, see neighborhood schools as a valuable amenity.
“Schools typically help developments grow,” said Deon Jackson, chief administrative officer for the Berkeley County School District, in a May interview about Cainhoy Plantation. “I don’t think this is going to be any different.”
Coastal Conservation League Executive Director Dana Beach said a mega-development “is absolutely better” for responsible growth planning than multiple, smaller developments, but with an important caveat.
“The other side of it is, when you don’t have a good planning team, they can be vastly worse, because they are so much bigger,” he said.
A mega-development could turn out like a traditional town, or could more resemble a series of subdivisions within a larger subdivision. Of course, there’s disagreement about what constitutes good planning and what home-buyers want.
Huge developments create an urgency for local governments to carefully negotiate multi-decade contracts with developers. The deals might require land contributions for schools and parks, fees to help pay for roads and schools, and requirements for affordable housing — or they might not, depending on the government that negotiates them.
“These decisions are so important,” Beach said. “I think the single most important thing is, they are not alike.”
Charleston-area mega-developments range from urban sites with environmental challenges to suburban areas to huge tracts of sensitive rural land — each with their own issues.
Public goals might range from land reclamation to land preservation. Traffic impacts and the cost of public services are always an issue.
Magnolia, an urban 3,500-home development, is planned in Charleston’s Neck Area along the Ashley River, on polluted land once home to fertilizer plants and other industry. The property has been undergoing a multi-year environmental cleanup and the ownership is going through bankruptcy, with WestRock expected to take over as developer.
Charleston encouraged development of the blighted Magnolia area by creating a special tax district that financed a $10 million bridge to the property, known as the “bridge to nowhere” because the development plan stalled. The agreement also calls for public green space and up to 675 units of affordable “workforce” housing.
In contrast, when developers proposed building thousands of homes at the rural edge of West Ashley, in a development called Long Savannah, the city extracted concessions through a development agreement. The developer needed both Charleston and Charleston County to redraw their urban growth boundary lines, and there was some opposition.
Charleston agreed to annex the Long Savannah land, permit the development, and work with the county to buy land for public parks. The developers agreed to finance an $8 million parkway, donate land for affordable housing, schools and public services, and pay $1,400 in fees for every house that’s built to help fund new roads and schools.
And then came East Edisto, nearly 72,000 acres of former timberland and rural landscape extending all the way to the Edisto River. When MeadWestvaco (now WestRock) set out to plan development there, the focus of many advocates was land conservation, leading to the creation of a conservancy that protected more than 53,000 acres in two counties.
“It’s the largest single private protection of land in South Carolina,” Beach said.
The remaining parts of East Edisto will include the developments Summers Corner, with about 6,000 homes, and Spring Grove, with about 4,500 homes divided into smaller “settlements.” Spring Grove also has a large commercial component, and is meant to become a new employment center near Ravenel.
“If you look at sustainability, so much of it depends on connections between housing, jobs and services,” Seeger said, “and you can have all of that in a master-planned community.”
“From a planning standpoint, they make more sense than side-by-side subdivisions,” he said. “You’re planning at the community level, so you need to consider all of your infrastructure needs and incorporate that into the plan.”
In exchange for the predictability development agreements convey, local governments can play a larger part in the planning. Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley played a hands-on role in the plan for Daniel Island, for example, insisting that affordable housing be included, and walkable connections between homes and services.
“Mayor Riley had a vision for this place,” Sloan said. “That’s why he went and annexed it.”
Beach said development agreements — allowed since the early 1990s under a state law supported by the Municipal Association of South Carolina — also let public interest groups play a larger role in negotiating land uses.
“We’re basically doing an end run around government inertia,” he said.
With few exceptions, the new wave of mega-developments is creating towns on once-rural land at the edges of greater Charleston, but there are limits to how far such growth can go.
The expansive Francis Marion National Forest creates a growth barrier on the region’s northeastern side, just beyond Cainhoy Plantation, while the 53,000-acre East Edisto Conservancy creates a natural barrier to the west. And, of course, there’s the Atlantic Ocean.
The natural path of the region’s future growth is north, toward Moncks Corner, and northwest, following Interstate 26, mostly in Berkeley County.
“If you look at growth in the region, it’s like a tube of toothpaste that’s (being) squeezed up here,” said Seeger, in a 2015 interview about Nexton.
In April, Berkeley County announced that it would establish a “principal growth boundary” — a step that Charleston County took 17 years ago — essentially drawing a line on the map meant to mark the end of high-density residential growth, enforced by zoning and land-use plans.
Berkeley County’s line encircles Moncks Corner and extends past Jedburg Road where the new Volvo manufacturing facility is planned.
Supervisor Bill Peagler said the focus of the policy was “not on adding significant new high-density residential development in rural Berkeley County that may threaten its distinctive character and result in the costly expansion of public infrastructure and utilities.”
“Berkeley County will continue to push for industrial and commercial growth, so our residents are able to live, work, raise a family and play here in Berkeley County,” he said. “We want to make sure that our residents can continue to enjoy the beauty of rural Berkeley County.”
Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552 or twitter.com/DSladeNews.