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New homes were on the rise in northern Mount Pleasant in 2017. File/Leroy Burnell/Staff

MOUNT PLEASANT — In the latest and most dramatic action yet to slow the current pace of development, this fast-growing town plans to limit the number of yearly building permits for homes and apartments starting in January.

Annual permits for homes and apartments would drop by nearly a third, compared with an average of nearly 1,200 new dwellings built during each of the past five years. And more than a quarter of the new homes allowed during the next five years would be in just two developments, Carolina Park near Wando High School and Liberty Hill Farms off Rifle Range Road.

Aside from those two subdivisions, which have development contracts with the town and are exempt from the permit restrictions, just 600 new dwellings would be permitted each year starting in 2019, with half the permits available at the start of the year and half July 1.

The new restrictions would follow earlier growth-limiting steps by the town that included a moratorium on new apartment buildings, limits on building height, changes in zoning rules and a sharp increase in development impact fees

The impact fees must be used to pay for development-related needs, from roads to fire protection. The fees for a single home soared from $1,860 in early 2017 to $6,161 as of July 1.

“If you don’t build the house, you don’t create the need for more infrastructure," said Councilman Joe Bustos, who advocated the permit rationing plan Town Council initially approved 9-0 on Nov. 13. A public hearing is planned Dec. 19, with a final vote on the permit plan Jan. 2.

If approved Jan. 2, the permit-limit plan would be the second one for Mount Pleasant. The town also restricted permits from 2000 through 2007

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A word cloud, built from more than 900 comments submitted to Mount Pleasant, highlights the most-mentioned concerns during a presentation on the town's Comprehensive Plan on Tuesday, Jan. 30 2018. File/David Slade/Staff

Real estate industry professionals say limiting permits would encourage sprawl and make homes less affordable, in a town where the average home sale price in the northern part of Mount Pleasant was $573,948 this year through October, and was $670,851 in the southern part of town, according to the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.

"With housing options and affordability limited, Mount Pleasant should be examining ways to get our teachers and public service employees closer to their place of employment, rather than pushing them farther away," said Josh Dix, legislative director for CTAR. "The building permit allocation system will only make housing choices scarcer and less affordable."

Over the next five years, the town plans to allow a total of 2,100 permits for single-family detached homes, 300 permits for townhouses, 100 for accessory dwellings and 500 for multi-family units — enough for about two apartment buildings. Low-income housing and replacement housing, where an existing home is replaced with a new one, would be exempt.

The town's permit plan comes amid growing signs of a nationwide slowdown in home construction. A key gauge of the housing market, the National Association of Home Builders' monthly confidence index, fell sharply Monday.  

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The town's growth rate has also been slowing, but Mount Pleasant's mayor and council members — all elected on pledges to restrain growth and protect the town's quality of life — aren't planning to wait and see if development slows on its own.

“Normally, in a free market, businesses and citizens regulate themselves, by the fact that if it starts to get too crowded it’s not as attractive," Councilwoman Kathy Landing said at the Nov. 13 council meeting.

“Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked very well," she said. "Everybody loves Mount Pleasant and wants to come here."

During the Great Recession, building permits plummeted in the town, to a low of 167 in 2009. The number of permits issued didn't rise above 1,000 until 2012, but in the years that followed the town saw some of the most rapid growth in South Carolina and was ranked among the fastest-growing large cities in the nation.

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A Mount Pleasant presentation to a Town Council committee in March 2018 gave estimates of the town's capacity for more residential housing. File/David Slade/Staff

The town has gained about 20,000 residents since 2010, and complaints about traffic and the loss of green space played key roles in the last two elections there. Earlier this year, town officials estimated there's only enough land for about 10,000 more homes in the town, a figure that included large green spaces such as Boone Hall Plantation.

Emily Williams contributed to this report.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com