Watson Hill (copy) (copy)

North Charleston approved the initial rezoning request as the first step toward a major new development on an isolated piece of rural land west of the Ashley River. File/Staff

West Ashley residents aren't happy about a 1,000-home development along a scenic and historic corridor. But North Charleston officials and conservation groups say it could be worse.

North Charleston's Public Safety Committee recommended approval to rezone property at 4527 Ashley River Road in Dorchester County to planned development, paving the way for the residences on the site known as Watson Hill.

But original plans years ago called for 5,000 homes spread across the 4,000-acre site until a deed restriction reduced the number of potential houses. Additionally, the Coastal Conservation League worked with developers to establish a plan for a dense, mixed-use community on several hundreds of acres, leaving most of the land undeveloped.

Council members, West Ashley residents and conservation groups recognized the rezoning is needed for the proposal that would mitigate environmental impacts — it goes before City Council for final approval next week — but they are not thrilled about having to select what they perceive as the best of two bad options.

Without the rezoning, the houses could be built across the 4,000-acre site. The rezoning keeps the houses in a dense area to preserve green space.

Either way, development is on its way.

"It's the lesser of two evils," said Councilman Todd Olds, who voted in favor of the recommendation to rezone. "I foresee the burden is going to be on the city."

Many still have concerns about impacts of traffic and flooding and how the neighborhood would disrupt the rural character of S.C. Highway 61, a scenic and historic route with antebellum-era rice plantations.

Embroiled in controversy

The decision, which the committee passed 7-2, comes after years of tension and lawsuits between North Charleston and other municipalities and community organizations over North Charleston's decision to leap the Ashley River, across from its traditional city limits, and annex thousands of acres in the historic area.

Many were outraged over plans that called for thousands of homes in a rural tract that lacks immediate resources, such as fire, police and sewage services.

The Coastal Conservation League's suit against the city died in 2011 and the group has since worked with developers to come up with a project that limits environmental impact.

But the league still has concerns.

“There's no question that building 1,000 units on a narrow Highway 61 is going to put major traffic congestion," said Jason Crowley, director of communities and transportation for the league. 

"The growth of our region should be in the areas where our infrastructure already exists. ... Building development in rural areas along Highway 61 is not a good recipe for growth.”

Nearby West Ashley residents expressed similar sentiments Thursday and said the project would disrupt the rural character of the historic area. Abutting the property is an antebellum-era rice plantation where slaves worked the grounds under thick Lowcountry humidity.

"If you build a city on 300 acres, you've blown the country," said Russ Iserman, who lives nearby on Dogwood Ridge Road. "Don't build a city in the middle of the country, and then call it country."

There are several low-income communities in North Charleston that lack basic resources and some council members said the city already has trouble maintaining its current roads in large complexes, like Wescott.

"Once we take these roads into the city ... somebody's going to have to pay for them," said Councilman Kenny Skipper, who voted against the rezoning. "It's not going to come from the county. It's not going to come from the state. We're going to be sitting here trying to figure out how to pay for them."

Regarding fire services, the developer will be required either to build a fire station or install all of the homes with sprinkler services, officials said. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the city would also be backed up by Dorchester County law enforcement.

More to come

Employees with Johnson Development Associates, a Spartanburg-based real estate company that purchased the site last year, have met with several preservation groups and residents to address concerns.

Current site plans call for a 200-foot buffer along Ashley River Road and the site will have minimal impacts to the nearby wetland, said Hunter Dawkins, the company's director of development for the natural resources division. He added that the complex's design would allot for internal circulation, reducing the amount of traffic on the two-lane Ashley River Road.

Almost 700 acres of the property will be used for residential and commercial development, while the remaining 3,000 acres will be used for timber operations. The site will have plenty of green space to handle stormwater, Dawkins said.

Residents and preservation groups appreciate the developer's openness to dialogue and they hope all parties continue working together. Collaboration is necessary in an area that grapples with the challenge of balancing growth with quality of life, preservation groups said.

“This is an example as to why we need to be working together and looking at a plan for the future of where we want our growth to be," Crowley said.

North Charleston isn't finished expanding its territory west of the river. A judge recently ruled in the city's favor involving a suit over Runnymede Plantation, a 1-acre lot also on Highway 61.

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Rickey Dennis covers North Charleston and faith & values for the Post and Courier.

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