Riley’s hard-won legacy a growing, thriving city

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley gets animated when talking about the positive impact the completion of Interstate 526 would have on the region during a public hearing at the Lonnie Hamilton III Public Services Building in North Charleston in 2012.

When Joe Riley was a teenager, growing up in the 1950s on the Charleston peninsula, he could have jogged to the far end of the city limits and back in about an hour.

That would be an amazing feat today. In the Charleston of Riley’s youth, the peninsula was the entire city, less than 4 miles long from The Battery to the northern city line at Mount Pleasant Street, but it has grown tremendously.

Now, a person might be able to get from one end of Charleston to the other in an hour, but they would need a car, and favorable traffic. As Riley prepares to step down after 40 years as Charleston’s mayor, the city limits extend to the western edges of Johns Island and West Ashley, and to the Francis Marion National Forest in Berkeley County, above the Wando River at the north end of Mount Pleasant.

More than four decades of territorial expansion — much of it hard-fought and controversial — transformed Charleston from an 8-square-mile urban enclave with a shrinking population into a 109-square-mile city with rural edges, bustling suburbs, and growing population that could soon overtake Columbia’s to become the state’s largest.

“I knew I had a responsibility to facilitate the city’s growth, in population and size,” said Riley, who was elected to the first of his 10 consecutive terms in City Hall in 1975. “A center city, to remain healthy, must be able to grow as the metropolitan area grows.”

His expansionist goals sometimes courted willing citizens happy to annex into the city, and at other times relied upon clever lawyers and secretive negotiations. Following a particularly large annexation — Daniel Island — opponents compared Riley to Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator whose attempt to annex oil-rich Kuwait sparked the first Gulf War.

When Riley became Charleston’s mayor, most U.S. cities were struggling. Middle-class white families had fled to the suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s, leaving cities with aging infrastructure, shrunken populations and less tax revenue. Charleston was no exception. The population living on the peninsula had plunged from about 70,000 in 1950 to about 45,000 when Riley became mayor, and kept on falling through most of his time in office.

Riley’s City Hall predecessor, the late Mayor Palmer Gaillard, had decided the city’s response to the suburban exodus would be to follow residents over the rivers and through the woods and extend the city to them. Unlike many Northern cities and towns, those in most Southern states can grow by extending their boundaries through annexation.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to the city of Charleston,” Gaillard said in a 2005 interview, 30 years after leaving office. “I annexed territory every year I was mayor.”

Charleston’s territorial growth did not always come easy.

“The Neck was hard,” Riley said, referring to the city’s annexation, the year after he took office, of the remaining land between the peninsula and the North Charleston city line. “We had to go to the U.S. District Court of Appeals on that.”

The Neck Area was lightly populated and heavily polluted then. Now, it’s the site of a massive environmental cleanup, with plans in place for a large residential and commercial development on the Ashley River.

Every gain made by the city, through annexation of neighboring property, was a loss to a public service district that used to serve and tax that land, and some annexations involved properties others had hoped to claim.

When Charleston set out to annex the West Ashley area where Citadel Mall was being developed, Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Charleston used a federal environmental regulation involving stormwater drainage to hold up the mall development while city officials were dispatched to the corporate headquarters of the mall anchor stores Sears and Belk, Riley said.

The result was, the property owners agreed to annex the mall property into the city, giving Charleston a key piece of the West Ashley property-tax base and depriving the St. Andrews Public Service District of the same.

“Citadel Mall, that was very important,” said Riley, because keeping the city’s property tax rate low, relative to the Public Service District’s, was crucial to getting other property owners to voluntarily join the city.

The city was unsuccessfully sued over annexations dozens of times, mostly by public service districts, and fought several court battles with James Island residents who repeatedly tried to form their own town, and ultimately succeeded. In the Neck Area annexation, accomplished with petitions and an election by residents, then-Councilman Robert Ford (later a state senator) was indicted on forgery charges after the names of dead people turned up on annexation petitions.

“He was never convicted,” the late Bill Regan said in a 2005 interview. Regan was Charleston’s top lawyer on annexation issues, many of which he said “involved a lot of intrigue.”

“The fun part was figuring out how to get from A to B, from the city to the land that wanted to come in,” he said.

Annexation laws have changed over the years, sometimes directly in response to Charleston’s growth, but the regulations have always resulted in a challenging process akin to a complex board game. Towns and cities can only annex neighboring lands, but public waters and marsh don’t count — a key point that’s allowed Charleston to expand from the peninsula.

Annexations can take place with the property owner’s agreement, or an election involving a large area, or the agreement of at least 75 percent of the owners, representing 75 percent of the property value involved.

That last rule played a key role in Charleston’s best-known annexation victory, the one that led to the Saddam Hussein comments about Riley; the 1990 annexation of Daniel Island.

Interstate 526, the Mark Clark Expressway, was pitched as a way to aid hurricane evacuations and ease traffic, but it also provided the first major road connection between North Charleston, Mount Pleasant, and the massive tract of largely undeveloped land in between — Daniel Island.

“Everybody was out to get it,” said North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey.

The peninsula on the Wando and Cooper rivers is larger than the Charleston peninsula, and was owned by the Guggenheim Foundation, which initially rebuffed Charleston’s offer to become part of the city. So Riley and the city’s lawyers enlisted some friendly property owners.

Using the 75 percent annexation rule, Charleston moved to annex the large but officially not very valuable Daniel Island along with some smaller but highly valued properties with multiple owners. And voila — 75 percent of the property owners representing 75 percent of the property value were on board. Charleston City Council met the night of Dec. 28, 1990, for the first annexation vote.

“When the annexation occurred on Daniel Island, it kind of happened in the middle of the night on a holiday,” said Cheryll Woods-Flowers, former mayor of Mount Pleasant, who was serving on Town Council at the time. “We knew something was going to happen.”

“If I had been the mayor of Charleston then, I would have done the same thing,” she said.

The public meeting announcement for the annexation vote was posted on the door of Charleston City Hall the prior day, a minute before 5 p.m., just satisfying the law about public notice. In Berkeley County, the incoming county supervisor, Jim Rozier, was due to be sworn in the same night as the Charleston City Council vote.

“He (Riley) called me on the 28th of December, 45 minutes before I was sworn in, and 45 minutes before they were going to have a first reading on the annexation,” Rozier said. “I said, Mayor Riley, I don’t know what the hell that means to Berkeley County, but I’ll find out, and we may have to do battle.”

In the end, there was no battle, but there were some hard feelings at first. John Bourne, then-mayor of North Charleston, called the annexation “a greedy move.” Some in Berkeley County called for a boycott of Charleston, there were bumper stickers criticizing Riley, and the Iraq comparison (Iraq invaded Kuwait the same year Charleston moved to annex Daniel Island).

“I didn’t find it offensive,” Riley said. “I understood.”

The Guggenheim Foundation agreed to voluntarily annex into Charleston two months after the first City Council vote to force their hand, and the city went on to help master plan the Daniel Island development, while also annexing land up the Cainhoy peninsula and into the Francis Marion National Forest.

“In Berkeley County, Joe Riley was not the most popular guy back then, and a lot of it was due to misunderstandings,” Rozier said. “It’s been a very positive thing, I think. Daniel Island and the Cainhoy area have grown very positively.”

Charleston’s neighbors, Mount Pleasant and North Charleston, also grew tremendously since the 1970s (North Charleston wasn’t founded until 1972). North Charleston grew quickly by annexing military bases, and Mount Pleasant grew by annexing large properties where subdivisions were planned.

In contrast, Charleston took an unusually hands-on approach toward bringing existing homes and businesses into the city, seeking to annex one property owner at a time, particularly in West Ashley and on James Island.

“We worked on it every single day,” said Jane Baker, the city’s former annexation coordinator and now vice president of community services for the Daniel Island Co. “They dedicated personnel to it.”

There was a city website, where residents of West Ashley and James Island were encouraged to learn if their taxes and water bills would be lower if they joined the city. Typically, they were, partly because the city-affiliated Charleston Water System charges higher rates to customers outside the city limits, and partly because cities — but not public service districts — get a share of local-option sales tax money, which means a property tax discount for residents.

The city also touted its recreational facilities, which charge lower fees to city residents, and its police force and sanitation crews.

“It was a softer approach, and really trying to get a message out to residents and letting them choose for themselves,” Baker said.

Voluntary annexations by individual property owners also can’t be challenged by a public service district. And under state law, people can annex out of a PSD, but not in.

Behind the scenes the annexation push looked more like a political campaign. Charleston and the St. Andrews Public Service District in West Ashley sent opposing letters to residents, hoping to sway them. On James Island, the public service district became involved with the effort to form a new town there to thwart Charleston’s growth.

In 2009 the city launched a media campaign and visited annexation prospects at their homes. Christie Holderness, chairman of the commissioners of the St. Andrews PSD then, told The Post and Courier that Charleston was “a huge bureaucracy that wants to take over everything.”

For many commercial property owners, annexing was an easy business decision — join the city and pay less in combined taxes, fees and utility bills. And with each business that joined the city, there was less financial pressure on Charleston, and more on the public service districts.

Baker said city employees embraced the message that Charleston was trying to improve the efficiency of government. To this day, there are streets in West Ashley where some homes are in the city, and some are not, which means two governments provide residents on the same street with different police and fire protection and sanitation services.

Encouraging voluntary annexations was Charleston’s soft approach, but the gloves came off when James Island residents sought to form a town that would claim all parts of James Island outside the Charleston limits.

“Back then, Joe was a Democrat and some of the more conservative folks had moved to James Island, partly to get away from the city,” Summey said.

Three times since the 1990s, James Island residents formed a town, only to see it dissolved following legal challenges filed by Charleston. And each time the town was dissolved, the city rushed in and annexed all those willing, before the town could re-form. Town supporters were left with less land to potentially form a town, and in some cases the extension of city boundaries prevented parts of the island, such as Riverland Terrace, from being included in a new town.

“They had to hit hard, and swift, to get rid of us,” said Mary Clark, the voice of the town’s second and third incorporation efforts, and its former mayor.

After getting rid of the town three times, Charleston declined to challenge the fourth vote to form a town of James Island, in 2012, but the town’s size had been greatly reduced by the Charleston’s previous incorporations and court challenges.

Now out of public office and 83 years old, Clark’s opinions about Riley’s policies still reflect the hard feelings enmeshed in the James Island incorporation fights.

“Joe Riley had his way with the people of James Island for 40 years,” Clark said. “He’s destroyed James Island, and now he’s destroying Johns Island.”

Opponents charge that the Charleston has allowed unwelcome growth. High-density developments the city encouraged in certain locations, dubbed “gathering places,” continue to be a point of controversy on James and Johns islands.

City planners saw the gathering-place concept as an alternative to sprawling subdivisions and shopping centers — sort of like small downtown areas within the greater suburbs, usually near busy intersections of major roads, where people could walk to stores and restaurants instead of driving. Opponents complain that the result of such zoning has, instead, been large apartment buildings, such as The Standard on Maybank Highway, without the promised benefits.

Riley said the suggestion that Charleston tried to gobble up all the land that it could is misinformed. He said the city turned down an offer to annex the Poplar Grove development because he thought such suburban development was inappropriate in the rural area west of Rantowles Creek. The Charleston city limits, west of the Ashley River, currently end at the eastern side of Rantowles Creek.

Riley said he also turned away an offer to annex a section of waterfront land in what is now Mount Pleasant, near Patriots Point. The area was not yet part of Mount Pleasant, at the time, and Riley said a developer offered to annex into Charleston if the city would allow very tall buildings.

“We self-imposed a limit on our growth,” said the mayor.

That limit is the city’s “urban growth boundary” that restricts urban-style development near the Charleston’s rural edges.

Charleston’s territorial expansion allowed the city to grow during Riley’s tenure, and set the stage for substantial growth decades into the future under development agreements the city has already approved.

Some of the land that’s been incorporated into the city — the Neck Area below North Charleston, the Cainhoy area in Berkeley County, and the Long Savannah tract on the western edge of West Ashley — could become home to the city’s largest developments yet.

In each case, not a single home has yet been built, but long-term development agreements have put the necessary approvals in place.

Cainhoy Plantation could have tens of thousands of residents. Long Savannah, on 1,520 acres west of Bees Ferry Road, could have 6,000 homes, and work could begin in 2016. In the Neck Area, ongoing environmental cleanup work could revive plans for a large residential and commercial development known as Magnolia.

“Eventually, the city will be built out,” Riley said. “If the city is healthy, since we’ve been able to diversify our revenue sources, I think the city will be fiscally strong for at least 40 or 50 years.”

In the meantime, Charleston is facing some of the hard-to-solve problems that come with being a growing, popular city; a lack of affordable housing, gentrification, traffic jams, and friction between residents and a thriving tourism industry. When Riley first took office, the city’s problems included a population that had dropped by 25,000 on the peninsula, vacant buildings, and crime.

“Joe has to be recognized, in my opinion, as one of the greatest mayors we’ve seen in this country,” Summey said. “One of the things I learned very quickly was, a city that doesn’t have an ability to grow will quickly become stagnant.”