Massive East Edisto tract could one day be new town

Alec Brebner, assistant planning director with Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments talks with Dorchester County resident Lucy Anne Cathcart about the plans for the MeadWestvaco land in the East Edisto area.

MeadWestvaco Corp. unveiled a draft master plan Tuesday for its East Edisto property that calls for developing about one-quarter of the site, or 18,000 acres, including what eventually could be a new town.

The paper company said about 75 percent of the 72,000-acre tract along the Edisto River west of Charleston would remain as open space through a combination of conserved lands, parks, lakes and rural areas.

The initial construction phase, which could take two decades or longer to complete, is concentrated on the north end of the property, in Dorchester County. It would include a business park to provide area residents with jobs, possibly from an unidentified biotechnology firm. It also would have three residential and commercial "villages" that would be smaller than or similar in size to The Ponds, a 2,000-acre nearby development.

"This is very much a natural path of growth for the region," said John A. Luke Jr., MeadWestvaco's chairman and chief executive officer.

The company said the three proposed villages will be "more than places to live."

"The intention is for them to be places to work, play, worship and learn," MeadWestvaco said in a statement. "It calls for quality schools at all levels — elementary through high school, as well as adult education opportunities and institutions of higher learning."

Two to three decades from now, MeadWestvaco said, work could begin on what would essentially serve as a new town slightly larger than the nearby villages. The location would be closer to the center of the East Edisto tract and include more civic functions, such as an unidentified community college that has expressed interest in obtaining land for a campus.

A similar town center also was shown for the south end of the property, along Savannah Highway and west of Ravenel, but that could be 20 to 30 years away.

The huge expanse of land between the two proposed town sites would feature a network of roads and recreational trails for horses, hikers and bikers. An undisclosed number of homes would be allowed on property beyond the three villages, though they would have various restrictions, such as minimum lot sizes.

Ken Seeger, president of MeadWestvaco's community development and land-management group, said the company will not build homes or businesses directly along the Edisto River, largely at the request of residents.

MeadWestvaco did not release projections at Tuesday's public meeting on how many people could one day live in the East Edisto development. Seeger said construction will be based on regional growth patterns, not speculation.

"East Edisto will only grow in response to market demands," he said.

MeadWestvaco has organized a series of community meetings in April to gather more feedback about East Edisto. It hopes to finalize the master plan by this summer. The company thinks what it presented is "close" to what the finished product will look like, Seeger said.

By early next year, MeadWestvaco hopes to submit development plans to Dorchester County and Charleston County governments. It likely won't break ground for another three to five years, but Luke said the company will "lock down" specifically how the land can be developed before then.

He also said the various restrictions, such as the number of homes allowed per acre, will be difficult to reverse after the development deals are signed.

The magnitude of the East Edisto project has caused a sense of unease among some people who live near the rural timber tract. While most residents understand that MeadWestvaco has the right to develop its land, many said they are disappointed that their quality of life might change.

But the reception at the meeting was for the most part warm.

Wilbur Jones, who owns family land near the Edisto River north of Savannah Highway, said he was initially cautious of MeadWestvaco's announcement a year ago but said that what officials presented was reasonable.

"I try to live in a real world, and, at this point, I'm coming away with good feelings," he said.

Bob and Linda Baker live on 41 acres of forestland near Summerville that is entirely surrounded by MeadWestvaco acreage. Two years ago, they moved from one of Summerville's largest subdivisions to the rural area for a change of pace and the opportunity to build a modest farm.

But Bob Baker said the two own "enough land to disappear in," and that the proposed development would improve their property values and make their commute to shopping areas shorter. He also said he understands that the region needs to grow.

"If you don't grow, you die," he said.

MeadWestvaco said it will serve as the main developer for East Edisto, meaning it would install the roads and other infrastructure and oversee how the various phases are built out by other companies.