MOUNT PLEASANT — Rapid growth that stirred concerns over density, traffic and schools. A controversial development that remained in the headlines for months. And a voter upheaval that replaced all sitting Town Council members who sought another term.
That’s what unfolded here in 1998, and for many, the most interesting question about this town’s upcoming election is whether history will repeat itself.
Councilman Chris O’Neal, one of three incumbents seeking a new term, is among those who hope it doesn’t.
He has chaired the council’s Planning & Development Committee and has been at the forefront of the recent zoning and growth battles in one of the nation’s fastest growing cities.
“I think we’ve heard from a lot of folks that for the past couple of years we haven’t been listening,” he said. “I find that hard to believe because we’ve passed a growth management plan, we’ve increased parking and we’ve increased setbacks. All in response to neighbors’ concerns.”
But Joe Bustos, a former councilman who first won election to Town Council during the growth backlash, disagreed.
“The mood of the voters and the residents is almost identical to the 1998 and 2000 elections,” he said. “Residents are just alarmed at how rapidly the town has grown. Schools are crowded. Traffic has gotten bad. The infrastructure is woefully behind.”
On Nov. 3, as voters elect four Town Council members, they also will — in a larger sense — decide who is right.
Anyone attending one of Town Council’s recent meetings has probably heard Jimmy Bagwell speak.
Bagwell, a former shrimper turned businessman, is chair of Save Shem Creek, a nonprofit group formed in opposition to plans for an office and parking garage near the creek.
He has spoken to Town Council repeatedly about that project, The Boulevard — a large new apartment complex on Coleman Boulevard — and about growth in general, including controversial zoning requests in other parts of town. Hundreds have attended its informational meetings.
Bagwell and Mayor Linda Page recently did battle through letters to the editor, and Save Shem Creek also is hosting a candidates’ forum on Oct. 8.
“I think we’re trying to persuade voters we want less density, slower growth and solving infrastructure problems before we increase our population to the point where we have a myriad of problems,” Bagwell said.
If the group has an opponent, it’s the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, which agrees that the town has growth and traffic issues but is pushing different solutions, Chamber vice president Mary Graham said.
“There are appropriate places in Mount Pleasant where we can put more density, and there are other areas in Mount Pleasant that everybody would want to protect,” she said.
“We see a direct correlation between density and the reduction of traffic, but I think John Q. Public understands that correlation,” she added. “It’s a complicated issue to understand.”
Bagwell said Save Shem Creek is not endorsing a slate of candidates, but there’s even disagreement about that.
One of its two Facebook pages make it clear that the group favors Jim Owens, a Save Shem Creek board member, as well as Bustos, Planning Commissioner Bob Brimmer and writer Will Haynie.
“Individually, we may have preferred candidates, but we do not have a slate,” Bagwell said. “Our agenda is to hopefully find candidates who sympathize with the overriding sentiment of the people of Mount Pleasant.”
Owens founded a Saving Shem Creek Facebook page, which he said was done before — and is different from — the nonprofit Save Shem Creek Corp. on whose board he serves.
“Folks on Saving Shem Creek have nothing to do with the Save Shem Creek Corp.,” he said. “The Save Shem Creek Corp. is just a group of volunteers who share the same thoughts and desires with regard to the direction the town should go.”
Graham said Save Shem Creek clearly is backing certain candidates, and the chamber expects to make its endorsements in early October. “We hope to have as much influence or more than Save Shem Creek.”
While the group might not have an official slate of candidates, it did decide to incorporate as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit — which allows political activity (unlike 501 (c)(3) groups, such as the Coastal Conservation League).
Another incumbent, Town Councilman Chris Nickels, said he would love to have the support of Save Shem Creek’s members and said he’s “a little worried” that voters might think he had something to do with The Boulevard, even though its development was approved before he won his first term four years ago.
“You know what I had to do with it?” Nickels said of The Boulevard. “Nothing. None. Nada.”
Other candidates, such as auctioneer Julio Avendano and motivational speaker Christian Bramson, were less sure of the group’s impact.
Bramson noted the group opposes the office and parking garage there, adding, “What else is out there to save on Shem Creek?”
“I do honestly think Shem Creek has been saved already,” Avendano said.
Businessman Ben Bryson said he is a little troubled the group is sponsoring a voter forum, adding, “That’s not quite an objective group. ... And not just one group should dominate. We need a collaborative effort.”
Former Councilman Nick Collins, who is in the race, said the group’s few hundred members might not make a big impact in a race where more than 40,000 are eligible to vote.
“I don’t know if they’re going to influence the election as much as they think they are,” he said. “We’re divided into two Mount Pleasants — Mount Pleasant South and Mount Pleasant North, and Mount Pleasant North couldn’t care less about Save Shem Creek. They’ve got their own issues up there.”
But Haynie said he was among the first to get in the race because he felt town leaders weren’t getting the message.
He said Save Shem Creek represents a significant grassroots sentiment in the town. “That’s what I’m getting from people — whether they live in northern Mount Pleasant, the Old Village or central Mount Pleasant,” Haynie said. “It’s ‘We’ve got to do something about the growth.’ ”
Brimmer said growth and development have dominated recent town elections and will continue to this year.
“I think all of the major issues people are concerned about are tied back in one way or another, not only to how quickly we’re developing and the manner in which we’re developing. Traffic, schools, finances,” he said. “I think Save Shem Creek is certainly playing an important part in the election in that they’re engaging the public on the issues.”
Incumbent Councilman Ken Glasson said the town’s growth is a sign of its success and quality of life.
“My goal in coming on council and staying on is to continue to build a community that my son and my daughter want to come back and live in because we’ve maintained a quality of life. By all accounts, we’ve done that,” he said. “Are there growing pains? Absolutely. But we’re doing something right.”
The Town Council seats are all at-large races, meaning whichever four candidates get the most votes on Nov. 3 will be sworn in on Nov. 10.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.