MOUNT PLEASANT — This town’s growth debate may seem to involve zoning codes and impact fees, but some consider it a fight for the town’s soul.
Town Council recently unveiled several proposals designed to address residents’ concerns that their town — South Carolina’s fourth-largest municipality and the ninth-fastest growing in the nation — is growing too fast in the wrong ways.
The proposed changes include reducing the amount of density allowed in certain building projects — even if developers take steps such as setting aside open space or putting rent limits on some units so they remain affordable to the working class. They also include raising fees for new development to ensure it pays its way.
At stake are two competing visions for the future of a former fishing village now considered one of Charleston’s most desirable suburbs, largely because of its public schools.
One version has the town becoming its own Kiawah Island, an unapologetically exclusive community where quality of life is paramount.
Another version would have the town growing in a vein more akin to the larger Charleston Metro area, with the diversity in race and class that entails.
Jimmy Bagwell, chair of the nonprofit Save Shem Creek Corp., said the town’s proposed changes — which are expected to come up for a vote at the April 14 council meeting — appear to be a “sensible compromise” between development and the town’s quality of life. But he said the town should emphasize more commercial development over new homes.
“We don’t need to encourage more and more bedrooms,” he said. “For too long, our neighbors in Charleston and North Charleston have outpaced us in terms of economic development.”
But others attending Tuesday’s stakeholder meeting about the changes said without affordable housing, businesses here will struggle to find and retain employees.
Michelle Mapp, executive director of South Carolina Community Loan Fund, urged town officials to consider service industry workers when setting policies.
“What this growth plan says to every one of those workers, to every student at Wando High School, to that server at Starbucks where you get that coffee every morning ... (is) we don’t want you in Mount Pleasant,” You can serve us, but we don’t want you to live in our community,” she said.
Mapp, who was one of only three blacks in a room of more than 100 white residents, business leaders and town officials, told Town Council’s Economic Development Committee that everyone should have the opportunity to return to the community where they were born and raised.
Business leaders cautioned that the town’s policies would move it toward a less diverse and less affordable place to live. While the town’s number of black residents has remained stable in recent decades, most of those moving in are white, making the town more than 90 percent white.
Fred Whittle, chief operating officer for Jupiter Holdings, said, “You should not be surprised at how white this room is because that’s pretty much what we dictated through decades of policy.”
While the town cannot control the rising price of land, it can control how many fees builders must pay to build, said Jim Davis, a commercial real estate broker.
He noted a Charleston Trident Association of Realtors survey found the cost of permits and other fees averages $13,204 per house in Mount Pleasant, almost twice as much as Charleston ($7,269) and Summerville ($6,306) and three times more than North Charleston ($3,850).
“Yes, livability has to be dealt with and sustained,” Davis said, “but I’d ask the council to really think about these numbers.”
The town’s elected leaders are hearing from both sides, trying to find middle ground in an issue that isn’t going away. A day after Town Council’s stakeholders meeting, town and school officials addressed Mount Pleasant’s growth to business leaders during a Wednesday “Business in Your Backyard” session.
Councilman Gary Santos said he was interested in passing the town’s growth plan — not listening to business concerns.
“The citizens are the ones who put us in office, and they’re the ones we’re here to serve,” he said. “I’m sure some of the business people are citizens, too, but not all of them.”
Councilman Mark Smith, who moderated the stakeholders meeting, said everyone has the right to their own opinion.
“There’s been a percentage of people — in emails I’ve received — asking why are we prioritizing affordability?” he said. “We have been known as an affluent community, and perhaps it’s OK that some people can’t afford to live in our community.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.