Quiet Sol Legare community no place to stage weddings, events, neighbors say

Residents living along Sol Legare Road on James Island are fighting a zoning exception that will allow a wedding and special events business to operate near here.

Some residents say the Sol Legare community is so quiet they can hear the cows moo across the water on Johns Island, and they want it to stay that way.

Dozens of them — some whose families have lived there for generations and others who arrived in recent years — lost their initial skirmish to keep a wedding and special-events venue from opening along Sol Legare Road on James Island.

Charleston County’s Board of Zoning Appeals gave the new business a green light to move forward April 13 despite strong opposition from the community, including petitions with more than 100 signatures. The residents plan to appeal the decision in circuit court, their last chance to stop the business from opening.

Meanwhile, Tim Willoughby, a wedding photographer who owns and lives on the property at 2387 Sol Legare Road, said that if he can’t use the 3.25-acre tract for special events, he’ll be forced to sell. Willoughby bought the scenic, waterfront property on King Flats Creek in July 2014 for $700,000 with the intention of also using it for a business. But he hadn’t yet received the required special exception from the appeals board.

He applied for that in December, a move that prompted Charleston County Council to amend its zoning laws, said Daniel Pennick, the county’s planning director. Special-events businesses no longer are allowed in residential communities like those along Sol Legare Road, so if Willoughby applied for a permit today, he wouldn’t get one. But because Willoughby had filed his application before the change was made, his application was allowed to move through the process.

Some residents are worried about the problems a venue with amplified music that serves alcohol will bring to their historic community, where the all-black Massachusetts 54th regiment fought a Civil War battle and where the squat brick building that opened in the 1940s as a segregated school for black children now serves as a community center.

In addition to bringing traffic from cars and delivery trucks, the venue will bring a lot of noise, residents said. That will harm their quality of life and possibly drive down the value of their property, they said.

“This has always been a residential neighborhood,” said Jacqueline Singleton-Brown. “Everybody knows everybody. We’re all related to each other.”

Bill “Cubby” Wilder, who grew up in the community, said children and elderly people walk along Sol Legare Road because there are no sidewalks, and the additional traffic will be dangerous for them. “We’ve got a lot of issues with this,” he said.

The residents said they don’t think appeals board members listened to their concerns when the body approved the permit by a 4-3 vote.

The board is a quasi-judicial group and its decisions stand on their own without County Council approval. But council members appoint people to the board.

The Sol Legare community is represented by County Council member Anna Johnson, who appointed Cheryl Cromwell to the board.

Cromwell didn’t attend the April 13 meeting where the board approved the special exception.

Cromwell didn’t respond to voice mail messages Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.

Johnson didn’t respond to voice mail messages on her cellphone and county phone or emails Tuesday through Friday.

Board chairman Samuel McConnell, who voted in favor of the exception, said he did so because a report by county staff members indicated the application met the criteria that was in place at the time.

In Willoughby’s application for a permit, he said he wanted to hold up to 20 events per year, with about 100 to 150 people at a typical event. All events would be held on weekends between noon and 11 p.m. They would be outdoors, although he plans to convert an existing barn on the property into a pavilion.

Events must be catered because there are no kitchens on the property. And users are responsible for bringing in portable bathroom facilities, and taking away trash.

Although there would be 65 parking spaces available, he expects most users to hire buses to transport their guests to and from events.

Willoughby said he thinks neighborhood opposition to his business is “led by a few very wealthy neighbors who seem to be intent on bullying us out of this property.”

He plans to be considerate of his neighbors, he said. “I have no doubt all of their concerns will be dissuaded with one event,” he said.

But, he said, there are only 13 residences within a half-mile of his property.

The county planning director, however, said in a report that several residences fall within 300 feet of the property.

And he thinks his business is consistent with the character of the area. He said there’s a public boat landing at the end of Sol Legare Road, Backman Seafood about two miles away and three clubs or gathering places on Mosquito Beach, about a mile from his property.

And if his business turns a profit, he plans to donate 10 percent to the Concerned Citizens of Sol Legare.

Despite landing the board’s approval last month, Willoughby said, he’s still unsure his business actually will happen. “I feel a bit like it’s still up in the air.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich