The entwined tree-branch canopy over Johns Island's rural roads offers a shady break from the Southeast's blistering sun. It’s another world from Charleston’s bustling, tourist-flocked downtown peninsula.
The 10 miles between the Ashley River's twin bridges and the massive Angel Oak tree can take an hour's drive.
But it didn't always take that long. People remember the quiet woodlands, now replaced by rooftops.
Underlying tensions are stirring — a push from government officials saying they have a plan to make sure these problems don't get worse and a pull from residents seeking autonomy.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg admits there's some needed catch-up work on Johns Island but said the pieces are falling into place. New City Councilman Karl Brady, a five-year city resident, thinks Johns Islanders' quality of life should be improving.
Marvin Wagner, who represented those residents on Charleston City Council until December, said recently he could "almost guarantee" the number of people living on Johns Island has doubled in the past decade. He was spot on.
Charleston County estimates at least 20,000 people live on Johns Island today, twice the population there 10 years ago. It took Daniel Island and Johns Island 10 years to double in size — it took the rest of the state 50.
The boom on Johns Island doesn't surprise longtime resident Tom Legare. There was a "growth spurt" on the island after the 2008 recession.
"The city's letting them build houses left and right in swaths," Legare said.
Twenty years ago — when city leaders expected an extension of the controversial Interstate 526 onto Johns Island — there was a rush to annex property, Wagner said. That annexed property turned into proposals for subdivisions, some only now popping up.
There were nearly 6,000 homes on Johns Island in 2010, another 2,000 have been added since.
Elizabeth Todd has lived on Johns Island near the Stono River for at least 16 years. When she drives her daughters to school on James Island, it takes half and hour to travel 10 miles.
"I decided to move because I was living in Mount Pleasant and wanted to get away from the traffic," Todd said. "It was very quiet."
Now, she said, the traffic is horrible, grand trees get chopped regularly and there's no one keeping watch over questionable building practices.
Sprawling West Ashley, not far from where Todd lives, has seen the most new single-family homes over the past 10 years — just over 3,000. On Johns Island, 600 fewer homes than in West Ashley were built.
But the difference between West Ashley, Daniel Island and Johns Island is the amount of space that can be built up.
"Johns Island today, it's unique," Legare said. "We still have the rural in some parts of the island, and you see a lot of new things come along Maybank that have some advantages. You don't have to go downtown for fine dining anymore."
Even though the coronavirus pandemic has closed restaurants and slowed the normal hustle and bustle citywide, Johns Island has seen recent openings of a new wine bar and breakfast spots. There's the French restaurant Fat Hen and Wild Olive. The highly anticipated opening of The Royal Tern in January 2019 proved to be too much for the restaurant’s parking. Owners asked people to carpool to save on space.
In the late 1990s, city and county officials agreed to preserve just under 80 percent of Johns Island by establishing where development can and can't take place and dubbed it the urban growth boundary.
City Planner Jacob Lindsey described it as "the single biggest win for land conservation in our state."
Charleston County Director of Planning Joel Evans said the majority of development on Johns Island has been within the urban growth boundary by design. He said the largest housing project in the county's portion of Johns Island is owned by mega-developer the Beach Co. near Kiawah. The Beach Co. has also built in Summerville, Columbia, Nashville and is working on The Jasper 12-story luxury apartments on Charleston's peninsula.
But it takes more than an OK from city and county officials for new development to pop. People need water.
"If you have water and sewer, you're desirable," Wagner said. "If you have septic tanks and wells, you're not so desirable."
The two water companies on Johns Island, Charleston Water Systems and St. Johns Water Co., saw a combined 71 percent increase in customers in the past 10 years.
Some infrastructure didn't keep up, contributing to the feeling for Johns Islanders that they've been left behind.
Growing desire for independence
Johns Islanders are nostalgic for the quiet, country community they moved to years ago and are now fighting to form a town.
Legare and Johns Island resident Randall Horres spearheaded that effort two months ago, but the coronavirus pandemic's halt on everyday life has stalled that effort, too, Legare said. There's still mapping that needs to be done, and 2020 census numbers, too.
Their concerns center on the booming population and the need to feel like island residents’ interests are being met.
Residents there have been critical about a controversial practice called "fill and build" in which developers truck in soil — most of the time clay material that doesn't drain well — and fill in an area so that the home they build doesn't flood. The water has to go somewhere, and ends up on draining onto properties that never saw flooding before.
They blamed the city for allowing the practice on Johns Island, adding to the feeling islanders' interests aren't considered.
The way City Council districts are carved up, Johns Island doesn't have its own representative. Brady, the area's new councilman, represents residents in a part of West Ashley, too. The County Council seat includes nearly all of Johns Island and outer parts of West Ashley.
After 2020 census data is released, Tecklenburg said, it’s likely the city will have a council seat solely representing Johns Island interests.
Brady, who lives in West Ashley's Carolina Bay neighborhood about 6 miles from the closest point on Johns Island, isn't a stranger to traffic. He's near the Glenn McConnell Parkway, another area that's often congested.
Having lived in Atlanta and experienced traffic issues there, he doesn't want urban sprawl from a I-526 extension either.
He envisions Maybank Highway as the hub, with space for biking and walking, especially in the area off Limehouse Bridge connecting to West Ashley's Greenway.
"I understand those feelings that they have because people have felt like the city hasn't lived up to its promises when it annexed onto Johns Island," Brady said. "I think people looked at the growth and infrastructure wasn't keeping up and thought the city was just trying to get the tax revenue without turning around and providing for it in the same way that other areas of the city may have been."
Future of Johns Island
Brady said he's advocating for a stronger police presence on the island and thinks the county's road projects should alleviate longstanding traffic issues. He wants the line marking where urban development can take place to become a city law.
That line drawn in the late 1990s to preserve 80 percent of the island, according to City Planning Manager Christopher Morgan, ushered in the "modern era" of Johns Island. It spurred a plan in 2007 outlining where, how much and what kind of commercial development should take place.
The development focuses on three areas of Maybank Highway: the River Road intersection; the area from Walter Drive and Zelasko Drive; and the Main and Bohicket roads intersection.
The county is working on zoning for the upper part of Main Road to further outline the type of commercial development that can be done along that corridor.
"Each one of our geographic areas has their own separate character, so you wouldn't see large hotels, necessarily, on Johns Island," Evans said.
Tecklenburg said the county's plans to improve Main Road, as well as the intersection at Savannah Highway, is just what the island will require to address transportation needs.
He also said future development will be more sensitive to drainage and flooding. He pointed to stormwater laws going into effect in July that limit how developers use fill and handle water runoff on new projects.
"We've got a new mindset about the impact on watersheds that, frankly, we didn't have before," Tecklenburg said, noting the city's collaboration with flooding experts the last few years. "I think that bodes well for future development."
Tecklenburg said the city is planning for another fire and police station on the island, as well as other city services. There's an application going for more park space, too.
"I know we're not there yet, but we're heading in the right direction," the mayor said.
The city and county are working on an plan for more two-lane roads to be run parallel to Maybank Highway. Construction of a nearly mile-long two-lane road from Maybank Highway to River Road, known as the northern pitchfork, will hopefully take place this year. Lindsey said funding for a southern pitchfork should be secured in the "near future."
Both city planners agreed that the solution to traffic is the extension of I-526, though Johns Islanders disagree, arguing it will bring more residential development. City planners say that won't happen and it'll alleviate traffic.
Charleston Water System is working on its final sewer system extension, expected to end at the airport on River Road.
"Once that is complete, most of our infrastructure needs will be satisfied," said Russell Huggins, Charleston Water Systems Capital Projects Officer.
Johns Island remains a place that offers a lot: proximity to the city, beaches, peace and quiet and cheaper real estate prices for working families. That makes it desirable for developers, too. In the next several years at least a thousand more homes could sprout, but how city and county leaders address traffic needs has yet to be seen.