One of the largest planned developments in Charleston’s history is poised to change the landscape in outer West Ashley.
The Long Savannah community and the next phase of the Village Green neighborhood as well as two large public parks are planned on 3,173 acres above Bees Ferry Road — an area more than half the size of Charleston's peninsula.
The vast project has been envisioned for at least 13 years, but it went through a lull as the property changed hands after the recession.
It geared back up when City Council approved the updated development plans in 2015, allowing up to 6,000 homes. Since then, the landowners have worked to clear their next major hurdle: a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to build on some of the property's wetlands.
While the permit is a necessary next step, the issue of protecting wetlands couldn't be more relevant to that area of West Ashley.
The massive property sits just west of the troubled Church Creek drainage basin, and north of Grand Oaks and Shadowmoss, the neighborhoods that have seen some of the worst of the basin's flooding problems in recent years.
Another new challenge in the area is the recent dispute between Charleston and North Charleston for land beyond the Long Savannah and Village Green tracts. Charleston planned these communities under an agreement with Charleston County that they would mark the end of Charleston's urban growth. If North Charleston wins the annexation fight for the other properties, new developments could extend well beyond that boundary, putting more sprawl on the horizon for outer West Ashley.
But Long Savannah developers, Charleston County and city of Charleston officials maintain the new community is being planned with the same goals they had a decade ago: to manage drainage and prevent flooding by preserving most of its greenspace, and to minimize traffic by putting necessities such as offices and a school in a commercial center nearby.
'A reasonable request'
The Army Corps posted a public notice last week that the permit application had been filed, noting 275 acres of wetlands would be impacted, about 8 percent of the total area.
Long Savannah owner and developer Taylor Bush explained that the wetlands in the application aren't tidal. They weren't classified as being wetlands until recently, when the corps surveyed the soil by digging for evidence of water.
"They have been telling us that they think this is a reasonable request," Bush said.
While preparing the application during the past year, contractors studied the property's topography to create a site plan that would disrupt the fewest possible wetlands. Ultimately, it led the owners to scale back the development's original footprint by nearly 20 percent and increase the conserved land by 400 acres.
Different types of wetlands help absorb water when it rains, and many of them have been lost to developments in the past two decades in West Ashley. Since 2001, new neighborhoods and buildings have paved over more than 2,000 acres naturally equipped to absorb water, the equivalent of about 80 football fields per year, according to the West Ashley Master Plan.
A city contractor, Weston & Sampson, studied the Church Creek drainage basin for six months last year and determined developments built there over several decades under different storm water and wetlands regulations contributed to the drainage problems.
With solutions still on the drawing board, a new development next door simply can't afford to make any mistakes.
But Long Savannah developers as well as county and city officials say this project will be the opposite of those older developments, and it ultimately could help ease the area's flooding by providing land and a potentially large infusion of property tax revenue for drainage projects.
Bob Horner, lead engineer with Weston & Sampson, said he believes that's a step in the right direction.
"We’ve got to move forward with the understanding that development has to and can play a role in improving conditions," he said.
Most of the property, 94 percent, won't drain into Church Creek. Storm water will flow in opposite directions, to Rantowles Creek and to the Stono River. The developers also must remove 98 acres from draining into the Church Creek basin and to divert its storm water to Rantowles.
The 195 acres in Village Green that will remain in the basin will have a drainage system designed to keep water from rushing downstream.
Another way the whole project would minimize drainage problems is by using permeable materials that minimize runoff, such as gravel for alleys, porous pavement for roads, and bio soils. Drainage ponds will be dotted throughout the project.
All of those elements are called for in the West Ashley Master Plan, which was developed last year by Dover Kohl, the same firm that designed the original Long Savannah concept a decade ago.
The green edge
Like many projects with Dover Kohl's fingerprints — think I'On in Mount Pleasant — Long Savannah and Village Green are designed to function like a little urban town, complete with places to live, work, go to school, shop and explore the outdoors.
Charleston's development agreement allows Long Savannah to build up to 4,500 homes and Village Green up to 1,500.
A portion of Village Green is already built. The tract where the new neighborhood will be built is owned by the Hipp family.
Housing will be densely developed, so it won't look like the usual subdivision with paved driveways every few hundred feet. Instead, homes will have back alleyways for cars and on-street parking. Town houses and apartments will feature prominently in the site plan.
Perhaps the most unique feature of the project is that it will be surrounded by greenspace.
Around the time the city and county established that Long Savannah would be the urban growth boundary, the county agreed to buy about 1,600 acres along the boundary line, to form the project's so-called "green edge." That will be West Ashley's new county park, called Bulow Park.
"West Ashley desperately needed a regional park, and this park is going to take a lot of pressure off James Island County Park," said Julie Hensley, planning director for the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission.
The city also bought another 232 acres to the south for its own park.
All the public and private landowners have agreed to place 1,791 acres in a conservation easement, which protects 57 percent of the property from ever being developed.
Long Savannah is responsible for building the roads to the parks. Bush is also planning an 8-mile pedestrian trail through the conserved areas, which would connect neighborhoods to the commercial hub planned in Village Green.
"The idea is to reduce traffic so there’s more of an urban setting where people have these amenities they’ll be able to walk to and ride their bikes to," Bush said.
The Coastal Conservation League, which was heavily involved in the process to create the park along the urban growth boundary, supports the project's overall vision.
"You have a town center that will give the opportunity for people to live, work and play in their community without having to take long trips by getting on Glenn McConnell and Highway 61," said Jason Crowley, the organization's communities and transportation program director.
The developers have also committed to building an extension of Glenn McConnell Parkway from the West Ashley Circle to the Village Green property, which would be conveyed to the city after it's built.
City Planner Jacob Lindsey said the city wouldn't support extending it any farther, as North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey has hoped for.
"Our urban growth boundary shows what we believe to be the extent of the city of Charleston, and it ends here," he said.
Charleston County is working to widen the existing part of Glenn McConnell from four to six lanes between Bees Ferry Road and Magwood Drive.
Lindsey said it could be 20 to 30 years until the whole development is completed. It typically takes about a year for the Army Corps to review applications.
If the permit is issued, the developers would begin the city's review process of the site plan, drainage systems, design and other technical details.