MOUNT PLEASANT — In an unusually stark difference of opinion, a plan to cap annual permits for home and apartment construction that received unanimous initial approval from Town Council was rejected by the Planning Commission, with a unanimous recommendation against those proposed regulations.
At stake is a permit-rationing plan that could be the only one in South Carolina. It also would be the latest in several steps Mount Pleasant has taken to restrict growth and development that has caused traffic woes and concerns about quality of life here.
The town's population has nearly tripled since 1990, to about 88,000, making it the state's fourth-largest city.
If the plan is approved in the coming weeks — as Mayor Will Haynie expects it will be — annual permits to build homes and apartments could be cut by nearly a third, compared with the five-year average of nearly 1,200 new dwellings annually.
Aside from the Carolina Park and Liberty Hill Farms subdivisions, which have development contracts with the town and would be exempt from the restrictions, only 600 new dwellings would be permitted each year starting in 2019.
When the Planning Commission held a hearing on that plan Dec. 19, no members of the public spoke in favor of it, while 10 spoke in opposition. They raised concerns about the impact on the housing market, on town revenues, the need for the permit caps, the timing of the program with the town's long-discussed Comprehensive Plan still awaiting review, and potential impact on home affordability.
"As a whole, we didn't think the timing was right," said Joseph Wren, chairman of Mount Pleasant's Planning Commission. "To get a 'unanimous' on the Planning Commission is unusual."
Commission members are appointed by the Town Council. Wren was just recently reappointed.
"This wasn't a knee-jerk reaction or a pro-development thing," he said of the 7-0 vote against the permit plan. "A lot of thought went into it."
One concern was that the permit plan would particularly limit the construction of townhouses and apartments. Only 60 of the 600 annual permits would be for townhomes, which are typically more affordable than single-family homes, and 100 would be for apartments.
The permit caps also would apply to accessory dwelling units — small residential buildings constructed on the same property as a generally larger home, which supporters see as a home affordability solution but opponents see as an unwelcome increase in housing density.
"Where were the naysayers when we spent months going over the details in committee meetings?" Haynie said Friday. "There are elements in the Lowcountry that oppose every effort to manage growth. The citizens have awakened and are demanding growth management."
The Charleston Homebuilders Association and the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors each sent representatives who spoke against the permit plan at the Planning Commission meeting.
Patrick Arnold, CEO of Charleston Homebuilders Association, told the commission the proposed building permit allocation system would make traffic worse rather than better, while infringing upon property rights and exposing the town to lawsuits, according to minutes from the meeting.
"Town Council should heed the advice of the Planning Commission and reject this proposal," said Josh Dix of the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors on Friday. "The allocation of building permits creates far more problems than solutions."
Haynie said rapid growth has strained town services and infrastructure, from police and fire services to transportation and drainage.
"We cannot sustain that," he said. "No one entered into this (permit-capping plan) lightly."
The mayor said he believes capping permits would not speed or slow housing development or the housing market but would rather put a limit on the number of home built annually. The town also restricted permits from 2000 through 2007.
The plan would follow previous town decisions to sharply raise development impact fees, restrict the height of buildings, impose flooding-related restrictions, change zoning rules, and impose a moratorium on apartment building construction.