Town, developer face lawsuit over Shem Creek zoning decision

Save Shem Creek, a nonprofit group, is suing to block a planned office and parking garage near Shem Creek. This rendering shows the view from Coleman Boulevard and Mill Street.

The nonprofit group that took its name from its ongoing fight to block an office building and parking garage on Shem Creek is suing both the town and developer over a zoning decision that makes the controversial development possible.

The complaint, filed by Mount Pleasant attorney Larry Richter, alleges that the town erred in allowing the project, which is on a site partly in the town’s Marine District. This district, which includes several properties near the tidal creek, doesn’t permit office use.

It’s the legal version of the same complaint that the group Save Shem Creek and its supporters have made publicly for months in hopes that the town would reconsider its zoning administrator’s decision to give the project a green light.

Town attorney Dennis Pagliarini notified council members of the complaint, which was filed Wednesday in Charleston County Court of Common Pleas. The town has not filed its response.

Councilman Paul Gawrych said Monday the lawsuit was “disappointing,” but added he was confident of the town’s position given what council has been told about the long-running dispute.

“I thought our staff did a heck of a job explaining it,” he said. “I quizzed them.”

At issue not only is Zoning Administrator Kent Prause’s ruling but also the town’s refusal to allow its Board of Zoning Appeals to hear an appeal of his decision.

Town Administrator Eric DeMoura has said previously that the town properly handled the appeal requests, adding that “the significant passage of time” between the zoning approval and requested appeal made the appeal invalid. He also said the town’s interpretation of the zoning lines was “the correct decision.”

Councilman Gary Santos personally requested an appeal, which wasn’t granted.

Santos said Monday that Town Council hasn’t talked about its response, but “I knew it (the lawsuit) was going to come.”

“I think this suit will bring out a lot of information and make everything public so the citizens will understand what is going on here,” he added.

Developer Tex Small of Shem Creek Development Group LLC, the other defendant, had said that he had hoped to break ground this past spring, but work still has not begun. The project also has faced a delay in getting a ground disturbance permit from the state’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.

A public hearing on that request was held June 17, and Santos said the room was packed with opponents but he understands the permit was approved. A spokesman for the state office was not able to confirm the status of the permit request Monday.

Town Council once embraced the proposed office building, even agreeing to use hotel taxes to subsidize its parking garage by almost $3 million for weekend and after-hours use by those visiting Shem Creek’s bars and restaurants.

But that deal eventually fell through, as Save Shem Creek’s members turned up the heat, arguing the project at Mill Street and Coleman Boulevard is a poor fit with the area’s prevailing character.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.