A controversial subdivision development with up to 205 homes will be allowed to move forward on a flood-prone property along Johns Island’s riverbanks.
The Charleston Planning Commission narrowly approved the Oakville Plantation concept Wednesday with a 4-3 vote, giving the developer the permanent right to pursue its plans on the 201-acre property next to the Charleston Executive Airport.
The decision came amid a groundswell of opposition from residents across Johns Island, who fear the project will put surrounding neighborhoods at a greater risk of flooding.
Over and over again at the past three meetings about the proposal, they asked how the volunteer board could allow so much density on a property that, to them, seems incapable of supporting it.
The answer is that the Planning Commission's review of any subdivision is pretty much a formality, regardless of where it's located. City officials said Thursday that the commission's only role when voting on subdivisions is to ensure the application meets all the city's requirements for technical aspects such as street widths and setbacks, which have already been verified by city staff at the Technical Review Committee.
In other words, commissioners aren't there to judge the merits of a plan. Still, their vote is essential for any subdivision development to move forward.
In this case, the commission's approval of the concept could be the only vote taken on the project. As it moves ahead with the staff-level permitting process, it might appear before a zoning board to request minor changes, such as a variance for tree removals.
It won't be reviewed or voted on by City Council because the council in the early 1990s already gave the property zoning rights for high-density development.
The majority of the land sits at about 4 feet to 9 feet above sea level. The Federal Emergency Management Agency designates it as a floodplain, with especially high risks of flooding during major storms.
"Approving development on land that low would be completely irresponsible," said nearby resident Tim Squire during the public hearing portion of the commission meeting.
Many others argued that the project's traffic plan is inadequate because it doesn't include a direct access to River Road. Its future residents would have to use the Stono Pointe community's private road to get in and out of the neighborhood.
Attorneys representing Stono Pointe and the Oakville developer, American Star, had different interpretations of who owned the road and who would be allowed to use it.
Commissioner Ravi Sanyal, one of the three "no" votes, said the legal dispute should be settled before the project proceeds through the permitting process.
Those who voted for the project said planning staff had verified that the traffic plan met the city's requirements, and the commission couldn't reject the proposal based on the roadway dispute or anything else.
'Completely opaque process'
The Oakville proposal was controversial from the start.
Island residents have been demanding solutions, and their cries have only grown louder with every new development that has been approved or broken ground.
Oakville seemed to contradict the core principles of the Johns Island Community Plan, adopted by the city in 2007 to prepare the island for growth. The planning guide said residential densities should taper down the farther they are from the Maybank Highway corridor. It also established ways for developments to be "light on the land" and sensitive to the island's coastal, rural character.
The city never adopted zoning codes necessary to carry out those ideas. It wouldn't have mattered anyway for Oakville, because it already had been zoned well before the plan was adopted.
Still, residents feel shut out from the approval process. Many of the big decisions are made in the Technical Review Committee meetings, but residents aren't allowed to offer feedback until the Planning Commission meets.
Some decisions aren't made in public at all.
Public Services Director Laura Cabiness said the Oakville developer so far has provided "very limited information" about its specific plans for drainage to the TRC.
"As they go into the process, then they’ll get into their detailed engineering and submit a lot more information to us, and we’ll review it," she said.
"It’s a completely opaque process," said Rich Thomas, a Johns Island resident. "Rather than doing the work of the citizens' interest, they’re doing the work of the developers' interest."
What are the flood risks?
Mayor John Tecklenburg recently convened a Johns Island Growth Management Committee with elected officials, neighborhood leaders and developers to discuss solutions to residents' concerns. The first meeting on Tuesday drew an enormous crowd, and most people came with complaints about flooding.
Phil Dustan, an ecologist who lives in the Stono Pointe community next to the property, brought his research to show what could happen to the area's water flow amid development, particularly near the Oakville project.
For months, he's shown planning officials and engineers topography maps and other data to back up his findings that clear-cutting and filling in low-lying forests for subdivisions will lead to more flooding.
"These are really substantive issues, and people’s lives hang in the balance," he said.
But many city officials argue they will be sued by developers if they try to down-zone properties because of flooding concerns.
Meanwhile, flood events have increased by 130 percent from 1995 to 2016, and the properties most at risk are in low coastal areas, according to Charleston County's hazard mitigation plan. Property damages from 148 floods in the region from 2013-2017 totaled $19.2 million.
Oakville is in one of the riskiest flood zones. FEMA requires any structures to be built several feet above the ground in those zones to keep them out of harm's way. The city allows developers to meet that requirement by layering fill material on their land.
Floodplains are naturally designed to store water when it floods. If the coastline is hardened, that limits its storage capacity and can send floods further upstream and onto neighboring properties.
Cabiness said if engineers suspect fill material will alter the floodplain elevation, they will require a developer to prove otherwise with a specialized "no-rise" study.
She's doubtful that will be necessary.
"If you’re filling along the coast in a large area, you’re filling a few acres. That’s not going to cause a rise," she said.