Debate over Ashley River district heating up again Dorchester planners urged to keep historic overlay protections

Dorchester County Planning Commissioners discuss possible changes to the county’s Ashley River Historic Overlay District Thursday, as a few dozen residents and preservationists look on.

SUMMERVILLE — Eight years ago, Dorchester County leaders ended a long debate over growth pressures south of the Ashley River by creating a 30,000-acre historic overlay district to limit residential density and commercial development there.

Today, as the economy rebounds and those pressures return, some say it’s time to change the district, particularly the parts farthest from the river.

The county’s Planning Commission met Thursday and heard from several preservationists and residents who urged that the Ashley River Historic Overlay District be left alone.

The Ashley River and the historic road that bears its name were among the Carolina colony’s first transportation arteries, and large swaths along them still have a rural feel and contain remnants of several historic plantations, such as Drayton Hall, Magnolia and Middleton Place.

The overlay was created after plans emerged to build 5,000 homes on the Watson Hill tract, which the city of North Charleston annexed. Legal efforts to undo that annexation faded after WestRock, the tract’s new owner, committed to protect the area through conservation easements and small scale development.

But the overlay district was created to safeguard an even larger area, the area’s heritage, protect its wildlife and water quality and rural character.

It runs from the Ashley River south, between the Charleston County line on the east, County Line Road on the south, and S.C. Highway 165 on the west. It’s also divided up into four subdistricts, based on the different conditions in each area.

The commissioners later held a workshop to get an overview of the district and to discuss what to recommend to County Council as far as possible next steps. They made no decision except for agreeing to continue their discussion on Sept. 10.

Commission Chair Robert Pratt said this is a good time to take another look at the overlay.

“Let’s see if there’s anything we can do to make it more acceptable to stakeholders, to make it possible for people to do something with their property that’s reasonable to do,” he said.

County Councilman Bill Hearn asked for the commission to review possible changes to the district, and several people said one problem is the owner of a commercial property that lost the legal right to continue a commercial use. The property that once contained a landscaping business cannot be used for a water heater maintenance business.

But the proposed changes could affect many more properties. The planning staff said the commission could recommend eliminating the two southernmost districts, which represent about a third to a fourth of the overall area. Other possible moves could revise the district’s language as far as permitted uses or reconcile conflicts between the overlay’s rules and the underlying zoning. Depending on the specifics, each move could open the door to development not currently allowed.

Sue Wehman, who lives off S.C. Highway 61, was one of several speakers who feared a domino-effect if the district is altered.

“Removing these thousands of acres opens the door to further tampering of this historic ordinance, and that makes me very nervous,” she said. “I really would like us not to lower that bar any further.”

Katherine Pemberton of the Historic Charleston Foundation agreed. “It’s a very slippery slope when you start to tinker with things like this, so we are very concerned about the situation and would urge caution,” she said. “We’d like to see it left as is.”

Pratt said there’s little prospect of greater residential density because much of the area currently has no access to sewer, and he said any proposal to change the overlay would involve a future public hearing before the commission or County Council.

Also, Pratt noted the commission voted Thursday to recommend that County Council adopt design guidelines for a certain building in the unincorporated area, further ensuring the compatibility of any new development there.

But other speakers hinted that it’s the district’s relative lack of development that makes it so special.

Michael Cordray, who has farmland in the overlay district, invited each of the commissioners on a tour of the area. He noted he recently traveled about a mile from his home and didn’t pass a single car.

“We are still in one of the great places in South Carolina,” he said, “and if we keep this overlay in place, we can keep it that way.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.