Olive Branch AME Church

Olive Branch AME Church in Mount Pleasant, near the intersection of U.S. Highway 17 and Mathis Ferry Road. The church has been attempting to sell a more than 20-acre tract of undeveloped land it owns in Snowden, for $6 million, amid community opposition. Grace Beahm/Staff

MOUNT PLEASANT — For a number of churches in this fast-growing town, soaring land prices have been a godsend.

Some have inked multimillion-dollar sales of land they bought inexpensively many years ago, boosting church finances and in some cases paying for other initiatives. Development-weary residents, however, might not appreciate new homes popping up on previously tax-exempt property. In at least one community, residents say they feel betrayed.

Parcels once owned by churches are now home to a parking lot for the future Lucy Beckham High School, a cellphone store at Towne Centre, and the Tidal Walk single-family home development.

Townhouses are planned on another church-owned property, at the end of Emma Lane near S.C. Highway 41, and the largest undeveloped tract of land in the freedmen's community of Snowden remains listed for sale by another church.

The potential Snowden land sale has proved the most controversial because it could significantly change the community. Snowden is sparsely populated, with an estimated 300 homes on 400 acres, unlike the abutting Mount Pleasant subdivisions Longpoint and Snee Farm, and it's a majority-black community surrounded by the overwhelmingly white town.

The more than 20 acres that Olive Branch AME Church has listed for sale in Snowden is "a developer's dream," according to the listing that offers the land for $6 million.

Snowden church property

Latroy Avenue marks the end of the more than 20-acre tract of land Olive Branch AME Church has listed for sale in the Snowden community. Brad Nettles/Staff

The church bought the land 17 years ago for $400,000, and church officials have rebuffed all requests for comment on its potential sale. Home builder Lennar Carolinas planned to buy the land last year but told community leaders this month it no longer has the land under contract.

"We wish the community and the church the best," Jason Byham, division president for Lennar, told The Post and Courier. "We look forward to being a part of other deals with land sellers in Mount Pleasant in the future and are disappointed we won't be moving forward with the AME church's property."

Byham declined to elaborate about Lennar's change of plans.

"Olive Branch AME Church will not be providing updates or comments at this time," Walter Smalls, a senior member of the church's board of trustees, said this month.

Church officials met with the Snowden Community Civic Association in March. In April, letters and a petition opposing the potential land sale were delivered to local, state and national AME Church leaders. A petition signed by almost 600 people was critical of the church, noting that Snowden community members helped raise money to buy the land because church-related services were planned there.

"Most, if not all of us, have been taught to believe that our churches were always the primary enforcer of what was good and best in God's eye for his people," the petition statement concluded. "We have always known and recognized our church as being the foundation upon which our communities are built. Now, many of our residents are left wondering if this belief is no longer true."

There has been no communication between the church and community leaders for 10 months, according to Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, who was a member of Mount Pleasant Town Council for 17 years and has deep roots in the Snowden community.

"Whatever happened to the church leaders of years gone by when the church was the foundation of the community to help and protect their parishioners and community?" she asked.

Soaring land values in the East Cooper area have made the prospects for sales tempting for churches as well as other private land owners. That's been true in other areas with rising real estate prices, such as Brooklyn, New York, as Bloomberg reported.

In Mount Pleasant, when the developers of Indigo Square, a 39-acre commercial and residential development along U.S. Highway 17 just south of Towne Centre, needed a sliver of land to allow better access to the property, Olive Branch AME Church was able to make a deal. The church, adjacent to Indigo Square, did a land-swap with Johnson Development Associates that will provide needed highway access for Indigo Square in exchange for a new 94-space parking lot for the church, located behind the Wando East townhomes.

Seacoast, the Christian mega-church with 13 locations in two states, had once planned its Mount Pleasant location for a 46-acre tract in Belle Hall, on Seacoast Parkway. The church bought that land for $1,377,600 in 1997, and sold it to a developer for three times that in 2014.

The Tidal Walk subdivision is in the final phase of development on that land. Seacoast's profit on the land sale, more than $2.8 million, sounds substantial, but Seacoast is undertaking a $28 million expansion that will add more than 1,000 seats to the worship center at its Mount Pleasant campus on Long Point Road.

Seacoast Church expansion

Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant is undertaking a $28 million expansion of the main campus on Long Point Road. Brad Nettles/Staff

Nearby, on Whipple Road, a trio of wooden crosses near the sidewalk still marks the former home of Unity Baptist Church and the church’s day care facility next door. The Charleston County School District bought the 10 acres for more than $4.7 million in 2015, demolished the buildings, and created a parking lot adjacent to the planned high school.

“The only thing I can tell you about Unity is that they were in financial difficulty,” said Skip Owens, interim director of missions at the Charleston Baptist Association, in 2016 after the former church was demolished. “They paid off the debt, and the church disbanded.”

Whipple Road roperty

The only reminder of Unity Baptist Church on Whipple Road in Mount Pleasant are three crosses near the sidewalk. The church was torn down to make way for a high school parking lot. Brad Nettles/Staff

The Verizon store on U.S. 17 at Towne Centre sits on property that used to be home to All Saints Lutheran Church and was later owned in 1999 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Toward the north end of town, next to the Ivy Hall subdivision, Lennar Carolinas is planning to build 45 townhomes off Gregorie Ferry Road at the end of Emma Lane. Greater Goodwill AME Church bought the 7.4-acre property in 1998, for $75,000, and it’s under contract to be sold for an undisclosed price.

At a February 2016 town zoning hearing, representatives of the adjacent Ivy Hall subdivision, Carol Oaks townhomes, and Gregorie Ferry Apartments expressed concern about aspects of the Emma Lane development.

With some modifications to original proposals, the town approved the plan. The church directed questions to a member of its board of trustees, who did not respond to several phone messages seeking comment.

Emma Lane property

The church-owned woods at the end of Emma Lane in Mount Pleasant will soon become a townhouse development. Brad Nettles/Staff

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

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com