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Proposal to protect land and create affordable housing in Mount Pleasant dies quickly

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Mount Pleasant's municipal complex. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

MOUNT PLEASANT — Tom O'Rourke thought he had a good plan to protect open space, create affordable housing and reduce traffic, and he wanted to let voters decide.

However, his fellow members of Town Council gave his proposal for a November referendum a chilly reception.

In the neighboring city of Charleston, voters have twice endorsed plans to borrow millions to fund affordable housing. In Charleston County, voters have twice agree to pay higher sales taxes to raise money for road and transit improvements and for protecting open space — money that bought more land for county parks, which O'Rourke used to oversee.

O'Rourke wanted to put a referendum on this year's ballot asking Mount Pleasant voters if they would pay a little more property tax — about $9 yearly for someone with a $450,000 home, he estimated — to fund $10 million in land purchases by the town.

“My thought was, maybe 25 percent of the land is for (affordable) housing and 75 percent is for protection," he said.

Mount Pleasant is one of the Charleston area's most expensive communities, where middle-income workers such as teachers and town employees are often priced out. During the first half of 2019, the median prices for single family homes in Mount Pleasant's two ZIP codes were $510,133 and $575,000, according to the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.

O'Rourke presented his plan at a recent Town Council committee meeting where fellow council members Joe Bustos, Kathy Landing and Gary Santos declined to support his ballot referendum proposal.

“What you’re doing is burying affordable housing in an open space question," Bustos said. “Affordable housing is going to bring traffic."

Bustos has been a leader of efforts on Town Council to restrict growth and development in Mount Pleasant with limits on building permits, increased development fees and other restrictions.

Landing agreed with O'Rourke that traffic could be improved if fewer people had to commute to Mount Pleasant for work. But she said the solution is to encourage the right kind of development in the town by the private sector. 

“One of the key elements of (O'Rourke's idea) is putting the town in more debt," she said. “The reality is, we can accomplish the same thing through private enterprise and public-private partnerships."

Landing also mentioned — not for the first time — that she knows of developers who are working on plans for affordable housing in Mount Pleasant that don't involve the government.

Landing said she met recently with the nonprofit group Housing for All Mount Pleasant "and we were looking at a real project that is already in the works, is already being considered seriously."

The project, Landing said, could create 1,000 jobs in the north end of town and up to 130 homes, and "will have to come to the town at some point for a little help in terms of possibly zoning or a variance or something along those lines, but not for money."

Melissa Moore, director of operations at Housing for All Mount Pleasant, said Friday the nonprofit group is working with partners on two projects. 

"We cannot talk about that yet because the details are not ironed out," she said.

Santos said he'd like to see affordable housing for people working in the town and suggested large employers, such as hospitals, could play a role in creating some. He was concerned that O'Rourke's proposal put open space and housing into a single question.

The town of Mount Pleasant owns no affordable housing and has no initiatives in place to create any, other than providing modest seed funding — a $50,000 grant — to Housing for All Mount Pleasant.

“They said they could go out and raise money for affordable housing," Bustos said. “I think the town has done what we said we were going to do.”

O'Rourke said the reluctance to even ask voters if they would support the idea could reinforce the perception that Mount Pleasant and its residents aren't interested in the needs of those with modest incomes.

"Maybe the perception is a little more real than any of us want to admit," he said.

The referendum won't be on the 2019 ballot.

“Nothing in this plan was a burden on the taxpayer," O'Rourke said at the committee meeting. "Nothing."

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

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