SUMMERVILLE — Over the past few decades, this town has grown from a small retirement and vacation hub to a development hot spot.
Walking through its historic downtown, it still has a small-town appeal. It's not difficult to find a place to park, and the area is walkable. Throughout the day, families gather in the recently renovated Hutchinson Square at the center of downtown.
Some take pictures, fly drones or just sit and relax in the park. For many new residents, it's the small-town charm that pulled them into the area.
"This is the real deal; there's nothing artificial about this place," said Dennis Ashley, who has been a resident of Summerville for around 30 years.
But as more people migrate to Summerville, bringing major business opportunities, and suburbs develop on the outskirts of town, some of the small-town charm is competing with rising issues around traffic and strains on infrastructure and resources.
Fifty years ago, Summerville had a population of around 4,000 people. In the year 2000, the town was looking at a population of 27,752. In 2010, that number jumped to 40,409. The Census Bureau reported in 2019 that an estimated 52,549 people were living in Summerville.
And housing developments are being built to match the growing demand.
As of April, Summerville — self-proclaimed Flowertown in the Pines — had 2,379 acres of planned residential developments that were approved and in the process of being completed, according to the town’s Planning and Economic Development Department. In 20 years, more than 2,000 acres of residential developments have been completed, adding thousands of housing units to the Summerville area.
Michael Lisle, the town’s economic developer, said much of the attention comes from proximity to Charleston.
“Dorchester County, as a whole, grows on average six people per day," he said.
The debate among residents is whether Summerville has been growing too fast. Nexton, Carnes Crossroads and Cane Bay are all a part of a space in the Summerville area referred to as the megacluster, where 30,000 homes could potentially be built. And, closer in, a 288-unit apartment complex is planned a few miles from Summerville High School.
This could mean thousands more residents coming into an area in the next five to 10 years that is still looking for ways to manage traffic and drainage issues.
Chris Belk, a lifelong resident of Summerville, agrees that there has definitely been a lot of growth, and that it's both good and bad.
"We're bursting at the seams," he said.
It's good for business in the area, but he hopes that more is done with infrastructure to accommodate the growing population. According to Lisle, the goal now has to be to push for smart growth.
“Does it add to our existing quality of life? ... Does it create opportunities?” he said.
More cars coming
It's not uncommon to hear a new Summerville resident talking about how peaceful the area is and how it's a change from what they were used to in a larger city.
Christine Puma has lived in Summerville for about four years. She and her family are originally from New York City. Her husband was relocated for his job, and they wanted a better life for their children.
"We needed a new place to call home," she said. "We love it."
In the time that her family has been here, she has seen more and more apartments, condos and homes being built. She worries about the town being able to maintain its charm.
Recently, the Whitfield Co. has taken steps to get approval of a 973-acre development that will bring 660 homes to Summerville once the town approves the area’s annexation.
The new development will add to the megacluster and also hundreds of residents to the Summerville area and Berkeley County. It will neighbor Nexton along Interstate 26, Linda Way and Drop Off Drive.
Traffic was one of the factors that delayed approval of the development back in June.
Robert Robbins, an attorney for the Whitfield Co., said a traffic study was conducted by a third party to evaluate the impact of development on the area. The study wasn't shared with the public, but Summerville Town Council held off on approving the development until changes were made to align with the traffic study’s recommendations.
The residents of Nexton requested that a 50-foot buffer be built to separate the two developments. Also, the new development doesn’t incorporate any road connections.
Jason Crowley, communities and transportation director for the Coastal Conservation League, said the lack of interconnectivity is a big problem with the traffic in the Nexton and Carnes Crossroad area.
“All you need to do is look at Mount Pleasant," he said.
In the S.C. Highway 41 corridor in Mount Pleasant, there are neighborhoods and developments with no road connections between them. Because of this, a lot of the traffic gets funneled onto Highway 41.
Robbins said that, in the past couple of years, Summerville has made attempts to be mindful about traffic, requiring developers to study the long-term traffic impact. According to Berkeley County spokeswoman Hannah Moldenhauer, the building of new roads and interchanges around Nexton and the planned widening of U.S. 176 all help address traffic issues in the region.
In Mount Pleasant, there have also been conversations around widening Highway 41.
“Well, that's going to be a short-term solution,” Crowley said.
He compares it to a person loosening their belt instead of losing weight. It’s not going to reduce the number of vehicles on the highway. With more interconnectivity, it gives more options for alternate routes, he said. Vehicles can cut through neighborhoods instead of crowding a singular highway.
He encourages developers to look at areas like Summerville’s historic downtown. The more walkable areas and alternate routes, the fewer vehicles on a single street.
Ashley, a longtime resident of Summerville agrees. He thinks building denser developments that promote walking instead of driving a car everywhere is one of the best solutions. He sees it as more of a medium growth.
Endless suburbs are not the answer, he said.
Affecting all corners
Traffic isn’t the only concern with growth in Summerville. Increased complex crime issues, demands for schools and social services having trouble meeting demands are all threatening the small town.
The Dorchester Children's Advocacy Center works with children facing abuse and makes sure that they heal in a safe environment. Some of the services range from family therapy and prevention programs to forensic interviews.
When Kay Phillips started with the center in 2004, she was the only employee. Today, as executive director, she said there are now 25 people working at the Summerville center.
The center went from seeing 57 children in its first year in 2004 to 441 the following year. It now averages around 1,000 to 1,200 children in a year.
Summerville’s growth over time has meant more residents, more children in the school district, and ultimately, more families potentially in need of resources like the advocacy center.
At Dorchester Paws, the only animal shelter in the Summerville area, growth has meant more dogs and cats in need of adoptions coming into a facility in desperate need of renovations.
The staff has to evacuate the building every year because of flooding. This year, they've already had to do it twice. The shelter sits in a low-lying area and the drains aren't able to keep up. The kennels typically flood with sewage and waste from the inside out.
In one year, the shelter averages around 4,000 admissions. Even during a pandemic, the number of animals coming into the facility hasn't shifted.
“We have staff that come in on their days off to walk the dogs," said Maddie Moore, acting executive director of the shelter.
Louis Smith runs the Community Resource Center in Summerville. During and prior to the pandemic, the group has organized food drives for the Summerville area. Over the years, he said, the number of people reaching out to them has grown.
With the pandemic, they’re seeing hundreds of people come through their food drive in a single day.
“Our food bank has tripled,” Smith said.
The growth in the Summerville area has been tremendous and the town's schools in Dorchester District 2 aren't immune to the impact. For decades, the schools in the district were seeing annual new student enrollment increases that ranged from 400 to more than 1,000 in any given year.
This resulted in redrawing of district lines over the years and voters in the area approving a $179.9 million school building campaign in 2002.
Between 2006 and 2019, the district lost $200 million from its base student cost not being fully funded by the state, according to the system's chief financial officer.
In 2019, the middle schools were either at or near capacity. Officials were considering altering labs to make more room for classroom space.
"School districts are having a hard time keeping up," Phillips said.
Lt. Shaun Tumbleston with the Summerville Police Department said the increased growth means increased traffic, and for the department that means a little longer times for response to calls.
He said that around 5:30 p.m., areas like North Main Street get hit hard with traffic.
While the number of those calls has gone down over the years, more homes and suburban areas have meant more complex calls for the department. There are more domestic and burglary crimes that require more attention and sometimes more officers, Tumbleston said.
There are 118 officers with the department now.
“It's crazy to see it grow. ... It’s definitely keeping us busy,” he said.
Growth as opportunity
The growth in Summerville isn’t necessarily an area of concern for everyone in the region. For a lot of people, it has meant opportunity.
Steve Doniger, executive director of Summerville Dream, said the Summerville area does well with keeping close tabs on small businesses. And economically, the growth makes sense.
The goal is to grow with purpose. And he believes Summerville has been doing that recently.
From a business perspective, Rita Berry, the president of the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce, believes the town is doing well. The chamber and the town have recently partnered on a market study to figure out what some of the gaps are on the business side.
The hotels along the interstate are an opportunity to bring in more travelers to the Summerville area, she said. And the annual Flowertown Festival in the past few years has grown to be one of the largest festivals in South Carolina.
Berry said Summerville has a good foundation for businesses to move in and that there are increased opportunities for residents.
“We’re definitely a sister city to Charleston,” Berry said.
Lisle argues that conversations around growth in Summerville have to center on infrastructure, such as sewer and stormwater. That has to grow as well, he said.
Russell Cornette Jr., Summerville's director of public works and town engineer, said they've worked on road projects to alleviate some of the traffic on North Main Street. The Bear Island road construction project, which is slated to finish this year, is looking to connect U.S. 17A to Nexton Parkway.
And in the Germantown area in Summerville, they are hoping to do more work around addressing drainage issues. A lot of flooding and traffic in a town isn't good for economic development, Cornette said.
"We have to make sure people can move around," he said.
So, while the thousands of people coming into the area is good, the discussions and approvals around new developments in the area now have to be about long-term investments.
“We want to make sure that over time that they’re going to pay for themselves,” Lisle said.