MOUNT PLEASANT — In a 5-4 vote before a packed house, Town Council voted to change the zoning code in a way that opponents feared will pave the way for “big-box” retailers across from Towne Centre in the heart of an area surrounded by residential neighborhoods.

Council member Chris Nickels, who cast a “no” vote, said he struggled with the decision.

“I have gone back and forth,” he said. “It truly is that close of a call to me.”

Mayor Billy Swails cast the deciding vote to correct an “antiquated ordinance.”

At issue was a provision in the zoning code that the ground floor of a building, the “footprint,” is limited to 70,000 square feet if it is part of a project on less than 50 acres. In recent votes, that limit was upheld by the Planning Commission and the Council Planning Committee.

But on Tuesday, a majority of council voted to scrap the limit in a first-reading ballot. A second, final reading vote will be required at another council meeting before the change becomes official.

Voting “no” on Tuesday night were council members Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, Linda Page, Elton Carrier and Nickels.

Residents of Snee Farm and other neighborhoods next to the Gregg Tract, where the big box development would be located for the most part, spoke out against changing the zoning code to allow the development. In all, more than 20 people addressed council on the issue.

“Our community is being watched tonight. This evening, a message will be sent. Either Mount Pleasant is closed, or it is a great place to do business,” said Ben Henrich, president of Henrich Properties, developer of the Gregg Tract.

Many saw the vote as a ballot on the future of the Gregg Tract and the Henrich Properties development planned there called Towne Square. It is on less than 50 acres of land and includes two buildings of more than 100,000 square feet. If all goes as planned, one will be a home-improvement store and the other will be a wholesale retailer. The third 50,000-square-foot building would be a sporting goods store.

Supporters of keeping the restriction on building-footprint size in the zoning code said it was good for local business. Figures were cited that showed millions of dollars flow out of a community when a big-box retailer moves into a community.

John Royall, owner of Royall Hardware, expressed concerns that a new big-box development will crush small retail businesses selling the same sort of products.

Council member Chris O’Neal noted that Henrich Properties will be required to receive approval from council for its project. Before that happens, the developer will be required to work with town staff and the Planning Commission.

“It’s not the job of council to tell business where it should or should not locate,” O’Neal said.

Henrich has said the project will improve drainage, create hundreds of jobs and fill town coffers with millions of dollars in new revenue.

The Planning Commission and Town Council last July deleted the provision from the zoning code that would prohibit the two biggest buildings because it was deemed antiquated, but it was discovered recently to also exist in another part of the code. For that reason, the commission and council were asked by town staff to delete the newly discovered provision to make the zoning code consistent.

The Planning Commission and Council Planning Committee refused to make the change during meetings in the past two weeks.

The Charleston Trident Association of Realtors supported removing the provision in the town zoning code regarding limits on big-box development.

“If you continue with the current burdensome regulation, the town will be promoting urban sprawl, creating unnecessary barriers to new development and promoting a standard that has no rational basis within the real estate industry,” the organization’s president, Herbert Koger Jr., said in a letter to Mayor Billy Swails.

The town now has two Walmarts, a Kmart and a Lowe’s.