MOUNT PLEASANT — A controversial apartment development near the Ben Sawyer Bridge, which the town blocked in 2015, will be allowed to proceed now that the resulting lawsuit against the town has been settled.
The lawsuit by Middle Street Partners was getting ready to go to court, seeking more than $6 million in damages from Mount Pleasant, when a settlement was narrowly approved by Town Council this week. No money will change hands, and construction would not begin until 2019.
At issue in the dispute was the fate of 8 acres of high ground along Ben Sawyer Boulevard, next to the marsh where the causeway to Sullivan’s Island begins. Many know the place as the old Channel 4 property.
The settlement allows Middle Street Partners to build up to 224 apartments, with construction delayed until at least March 2019 due to the town's moratorium on apartment construction.
Plans for a restaurant, a fourth apartment building and 22 additional apartment units were dropped, 1 acre of high ground at the site would become a park with a marsh trail, all buildings would be no more than 45 feet high, and the lawsuit would be dismissed.
“We got rid of a whole building, the one closest to the marsh on Ben Sawyer," said Ryan Knapp, co-founder and principal of Middle Street Partners, Thursday morning. "We replaced it with a park that we will build and maintain, that will be open to the public."
The developer would get a $375,000 reduction in impact fees, due to scaled-back construction plans, but would still end up paying higher impact fees than under the original plans because the town has significantly increased impact fees since then.
The 4-3 vote to approve the settlement took place around 12:30 a.m. Wednesday at the end of a marathon council meeting. Opposing the deal were Councilmen Will Haynie, Joe Bustos and Jim Owens — all of whom were elected to council after The Atlantic apartment plan had been rejected in April 2015.
Haynie, a first-term councilman who is running for mayor, said the town should have been willing to fight on. The Save Shem Creek Corp quickly took to social media to criticize the settlement, calling it "another blow to Mt. Pleasant."
"The oath we took was to govern, and to me, that means you fight on principal rather than give in and settle," Haynie said Thursday.
Bustos said the settlement was the best deal the town was able to negotiate, but he ultimately decided to vote against approving it.
"I didn’t want any apartments at all," he said. "I thought townhouses were the way to go, not apartments."
Mayor Linda Page said the elimination of a large marsh-front restaurant proposed in the original plans for the development makes a big difference, in terms of potential traffic. She noted that the settlement calls for a public park and marsh trail, and said going to court posed risks.
"When I originally voted against the project (in 2015), it was due to concerns about mitigating the traffic," she said. "If we had lost the lawsuit, the town could have faced a large financial risk, and the developer could also have been able to develop the original plan."
Bustos was among the town officials who negotiated the settlement, along with Page, Councilman Elton Carrier, and the town's legal team and planning officials.
"We were certainly under the impression that Mr. Bustos supported the agreement," Middle Street Partners' lawyer Brandon Gaskins said. "There are significant compromises on our side, and they were designed to satisfy certain elements on Town Council, including Mr. Bustos."
Councilman Gary Santos did not vote on the settlement, because his son works for the town's opponents in the case. Paul Gawrych also did not vote, saying he had a conflict of interested because he was a named defendant in the case, while other named defendants — Page, Carrier and Councilmen Mark Smith — voted to approve the settlement along with Bob Brimmer.
The lawsuit sought more than $6.2 million plus punitive damages, and demanded that the apartment project be approved. Last year, the lawsuit was amended to also claim that officials conspired to block the development because they wanted the property for a town park.
Mount Pleasant killed the development plan for 246 apartments and retail space in March 2015 when Town Council refused to approve the project’s impact statement, although the development met zoning requirements and the developers agreed to road work that engineers said would improve traffic. The town then changed its zoning regulations in ways that prevented the project from being resubmitted.
Strong public opposition met the proposed development. At one town meeting, members of a large audience sang a Joni Mitchell song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” about paving paradise and not knowing what one has until it’s gone.