One of the larger conflicts in the Charleston area pitting a developer’s right to rely upon current zoning rules against a city’s right to change those rules was a seven-year fight involving property on Johns Island.
The dispute centered on a 465-acre tract at River and Plow Ground roads, owned by Charleston County Councilman Vic Rawl and members of his family. In 2006, two weeks after a developer publicly discussed plans to build up to 800 homes, Charleston City Council unexpectedly voted to down-zone the land, sharply reducing the number of homes allowed from five per acre to one for every acre and a half.
The zoning change scrapped a property sale worth at least $19.5 million, and years of litigation followed.
By 2013, the city had won several lower court rulings, and the case was before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which required the city and the landowners to go into mediation. At that point Mayor Joe Riley and City Council overruled the city’s own Planning Commission and eased the zoning rules for the property.
During the same year the Johns Island zoning dispute began, 2006, there were also important Charleston rulings involving the state’s Vested Rights Act, which had been championed by real estate interests and approved by the Legislature two years earlier.
The act protects developers from zoning changes that could occur after a project has started, and extends the life of special zoning exceptions for up to seven years. Previously, special exceptions expired after two years.
Because of the Vested Rights Act, preservation groups were thwarted when they hoped to use the expiration of special zoning exceptions to block plans for a multistory hotel on Marion Square, and a college campus at historic McLeod Plantation on James Island.
The city’s zoning board concluded it could not refuse to extend the special zoning exceptions that allowed plans for the hotel on the site of the former Charleston County Library, and allowed plans by the American College of the Building Arts to convert McLeod Plantation into a campus.
The hotel project is just now beginning construction after a protracted court fight. The college campus plan for McLeod Plantation was scrapped, and the property is part of the Charleston County park system today.