With little legal wiggle room to do otherwise, Charleston's Planning Commission voted Wednesday night to approve a controversial plan to develop about 60 acres in Cainhoy Village with 215 homes, a dry-stack marina and businesses.
The 6-2 decision in favor of the Oak Bluff neighborhood development, backed by Bennett Hofford Construction Co., followed nearly three hours of presentations from planners, comments from concerned residents and discussion among commission members. Designed to fit the city's "neighborhood district" zoning, the plan needs no further approval from the zoning board or City Council.
City Councilman Robert Mitchell, speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting, stressed the need for a master plan for Cainhoy before approving a developer's ideas for the future of the bluff along the Wando River.
"Johns Island was my parents' home," he said, making a comparison. "It's gone. The rural character is gone."
While commission members echoed his sentiments during their discussion, a caution from a lawyer representing the developer rang clear: The plan met every city requirement it needed to move forward.
"Your role is to look at the concept plan and see if, in fact, they met requirements of the district plan," attorney Susan Smythe told the commission. "If the rules need to be changed there's a process to change them, but you can't retroactively change them. If you find some defect in this plan, you have to tell us exactly what it is."
The commission didn't, after spending about an hour talking and making a handful of unenforceable recommendations that reflected residents' worries.
"I'm just floored that this process has gone on for so long," commission member Susan Legare said. "We knew there needed to be a plan for 10 years. For lack of a plan, our backs are to the wall. I don't think this belongs here, but what else do we do?"
Before the vote, residents argued that a dry-stack marina could lower their property values, that traffic would increase exponentially, that coastal South Carolina would lose a vibrant wildlife habitat.
"It's a great plan, but it's a bad spot," Jay Wells said. "I talk to the chickens and I talk to the horses, and none of them agree with it either."
David Lycke, vice president of landscape for ASLA-HLA Inc., stressed the amount of public involvement in developing the plan, including meetings and a questionnaire. The plan, as approved, came after several evolutions, each bringing with it a reduction in density.
The design allows for five units per acre. Showing a slide presentation, Lycke compared the configuration to the Rockville waterfront, providing public waterfront space while preserving heritage.
The plan calls for a "Main Street feel" along Clements Ferry Road, as Lycke explained it, where residents can find shopping and recreation. The questionnaire showed that nearby people now drive far from home for those amenities.
"They were traveling five to 10 miles for many of the services that they desire," he said.
The design also provides for a senior living facility, restaurants, green space and trailways. It would include a mixture of housing, including single- family homes, townhouses and condominiums, with an emphasis on the pedestrian.
Speaking out in opposition to the plan, local attorney Neil Robinson said of Lycke, "I'm going to get this guy to speak at my funeral because he can make things look better than they are."
Robinson suggested the developers want to build a district to create a need for housing, that the natural order works in reverse and that the plan focuses on businesses.
"This is all about commercial: Dry stack storage, a restaurant, get a couple liquor licenses," he said. "It's going to be party central."