Johns Island Traffic (copy)

Motorists wait for the light at Maybank Highway and River Road on Johns Island to change Thursday morning, July 5, 2018. 

Charleston City Council members are bound to get some grief from Johns Island residents for allowing 698 new houses to be built there.

But they shouldn’t.

Instead, they should be congratulated for stopping 841 new homes from cropping up near the intersection of Maybank Highway and River Road. Because that’s where this was headed, and there was nothing the city could do about it.

On Tuesday, City Council approved a planned unit development that will eventually result in nearly 700 new homes, and the cars that come with them, on the infrastructure-strained island.

That’s not welcome news for Johns Island residents, to be sure. City Councilman Marvin Wagner — who voted against the plan — said it best when he noted the problem is that this will “generate more traffic in the high-traffic area.”

No question about that.

But there’s also no question the city could not have blocked the development, as many Johns Islanders would have preferred. Because, well, property rights.

This debate over the 70-acre Kerr property is the story of Johns Island in microcosm. A family owns a lot of land near an increasingly overcrowded city. Eventually, the cost of maintaining that property is outweighed by the profit that comes from selling or developing it.

That scenario has played out time and again on the once-agrarian island. One farm after another has been shuttered, replaced by subdivisions. An island that once looked much like the grand Legare Farm now mostly resembles the rest of Charleston, only less densely populated.

For now, at least.

It’s hard to blame anyone who chooses to sell; after all, it is their property and the Charleston development market is lucrative. Few people can afford to pass up such an opportunity, and even fewer would appreciate the government telling them what to do with their own land.

If that works for one person, it also works for their neighbor. Even if many people, who have long wanted to keep Johns Island rural, understandably don’t like it.

Even when the city tries to curb growth, it often finds a way. The Whitfield family wanted to develop Runnymede Plantation off Highway 61 — exactly the sort of place we don’t need more traffic — and Charleston opposed it, because the land is outside the urban growth boundary.

So the Whitfield family annexed Runnymede into North Charleston, which will allow the property to be developed. The lawsuit is pending.

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This Johns Island development faced no such hurdles. The existing zoning on the Kerr property allowed up to 841 apartments and houses to be built on it, and the city couldn’t even invoke flooding and drainage regulations to stop it. By most accounts, the land is some of the highest on the island, and drains pretty well into the Stono River.

Short of buying the land, the city had little room to maneuver. Had it down-zoned the property, the resulting lawsuit would have been more expensive than actually just buying the land. And the city would have lost anyway. See: Jasper, Sergeant.

So instead, city officials negotiated a deal with the owner that cut the number of homes that will be built there by more than 17 percent (which is 17 percent better than nothing) and secured land for the county’s proposed southern pitchfork road off Maybank Highway.

Without this deal, that road would have been impossible to build. Now it’s simply unlikely, since the county apparently believes the northern pitchfork road will solve most traffic woes coming onto that end the island (along with a certain planned interstate bypass).

But that’s another story.

The best clue that the city did all it could here lies in the outcome of the vote. Veteran City Council leaders like Keith Waring, Bill Moody, William Dudley Gregorie and Mike Seekings were on the same side of the issue as Mayor John Tecklenburg — something you don’t always see in controversial decisions.

That’s a sure sign this was the best outcome Charleston could realistically hope for. But City Council will still get grief for it.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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