MOUNT PLEASANT — Just across the Wando River from this town's huge northern subdivisions sit two islands that could be the only remaining path for Mount Pleasant's future growth — something that presents challenging questions.
The town, one of South Carolina's largest and fastest-growing cities, is running out of undeveloped land. To the north, Awendaw's town border sits like a roadblock across U.S. Highway 17. To the west, the city of Charleston has claimed Daniel Island and the Cainhoy peninsula. To the south and east are Charleston Harbor, the Atlantic Ocean and incorporated barrier islands.
That leaves Paradise Island and undeveloped Cat Island, both of which sit next to each other in a gap between the boundaries of Charleston and Awendaw.
Now, a homeowner on Paradise Island has asked Mount Pleasant to annex their property. Like many on Paradise Island, it's a nearly million-dollar property with a waterfront home.
The price is relevant, because Mount Pleasant officials have calculated that a residential property needs to be worth at least about $800,000 in order for the property taxes the town collects to cover the services it provides.
If the town agrees to extend its boundaries to include the Paradise Island home of Joseph and Janeece Grech, the couple would get lower property-tax bills than they currently pay. Also, Joseph Grech said their home insurance policy would cost less, and they would get garbage collection instead of having to take their refuse to the dump.
What they wouldn't get is access to Mount Pleasant's well-regarded elementary and middle schools — the issue that prompted the Grech's annexation petition.
“I was under the assumption that if Mount Pleasant annexed a property here, children would go to Mount Pleasant schools," he said.
That's not how it works, though. School attendance lines are based on geography, not municipal boundary lines, Charleston County School District spokesman Andrew Pruitt confirmed. Paradise Island is zoned for Saint James-Santee Elementary Middle School, in McClellanville, and for Wando High School in Mount Pleasant.
If the Grech family becomes the first on Paradise Island to be annexed into Mount Pleasant, they would benefit from lower taxes and more public services. What the town would get, or give up, is a question Mount Pleasant Town Council will consider.
“I do think we need to have the conversation with the whole neighborhood if possible," said Councilman Joe Bustos. "I think it would be tough to run all the services out there for one house."
Bustos and other officials aren't sure it would make sense to annex just one home on Paradise Island, which would mean providing garbage collection and police and fire protection. But it might make sense to annex the whole thing, and maybe neighboring Cat Island as well.
“Our staff has communicated not only with this property owner, but with others in the area who may be contemplating annexation petitions," town Planning Director Jeff Ulma told a committee of council members Tuesday.
In the 1990s when Billy Barnwell started developing Paradise Island, he asked the town to annex it but the town declined, partly because it was so far north of the heart of the action. Asking to be annexed allowed Paradise Island to get Mount Pleasant water and sewer service, but the property has remained a part of unincorporated Charleston County.
Now, with subdivisions filling up northern Mount Pleasant, it doesn't seem so far away.
Town Administrator Eric DeMoura said the elected leadership needs to be aware that the city of Charleston or Awendaw could potentially annex properties across the town's northern border, cutting off any path to future growth.
“They (Charleston) could move into Cat Island, which could allow them to get into Paradise Island," DeMoura said. “This is really a protective measure."
The way annexation rules work, a town or city can grow by absorbing unincorporated properties that touch the municipality's borders. Since water doesn't count, properties on opposite sides of a river are treated as if they touch. That's how the City of Charleston was able to annex Daniel Island in Berkeley County, as well as the Cainhoy Peninsula.
Charleston's municipal boundaries extend all the way to the confluence of Guerin Creek and the Wando River, across from undeveloped Cat Island.
When Joe Riley was mayor of Charleston, he said the city had no interest in annexing Cat Island. Mayor John Tecklenburg holds the same view, according to city spokesman Jack O'Toole.
“The mayor has never considered it and does not intend to," he said.
Some key players in the discussion, the owner of Cat Island and Barnwell, who still owns hundreds of undeveloped lots on Paradise Island, declined to comment. Mount Pleasant has imposed strict and costly rules about property development in recent years, which could influence the calculations of owners of undeveloped land.
For now, the Town Council has delayed any decision on the Grech's annexation petition for 60 days.
“It’s a money-loser for us in the short term, but a conversation needs to be had about the town’s growth going into the future," DeMoura said.