MOUNT PLEASANT — Here in one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, residents have become acutely aware of the importance of local rules that guide development.
Now, residents will have a hands-on chance to reshape those rules for many years to come. Mount Pleasant is preparing to update its Comprehensive Plan, the foundational document for land use and planning, and the town is looking for volunteers.
"This is the guide for future development," said Christiane Farrell, Mount Pleasant's planning director. "It could end up having some significant changes."
Residents regularly take to social media these days to vent frustration with traffic, the cutting of trees for new development and the appearance of new apartment complexes. Comprehensive plans guide the zoning rules that allow, or don't allow, development of all sorts.
"Development never stops," said Jimmy Bagwell, chairman of the Save Shem Creek Corp., and a former councilman. "Even property that’s been developed gets redeveloped.
"I think you need to get as much input (on the Comprehensive Plan update) as possible, and once a plan is in place, it needs to be followed," he said. "I think (volunteering) is an excellent way to get involved."
Interest groups often get involved when plans are updated, to defend property rights or to call for more restrictions; to urge high-density development to reduce sprawl or to call for low-density development to keep areas from getting crowded. And while a Comprehensive Plan is a 10-year plan, Town Council elections are held every two years in Mount Pleasant.
The town's current plan, adopted in 2009, said the town should "develop 'accessory dwelling' regulations to permit more of these types of units and ensure they are constructed in a manner consistent with surrounding development." The town did allow accessory dwellings — small secondary homes on the same property as a larger home — but some residents complained, prompting council members to propose restrictions.
The current plan also says that "higher density development should occur on the southern side of town, with densities gradually decreasing northwards," but the current council has chipped away at that idea, with measures including limits on building height.
The 10-year view of the Comprehensive Plan ideally helps avoid wholesale policy reversals, where one group of politicians gains power and seeks to do the opposite of the previous group.
Like Save Shem Creek, the Mount Pleasant Chamber of Commerce hopes that members will get involved.
"We would like for our members to give their feedback, and assist town staff and the consultants with the Comprehensive Plan update," said Chris Staubes, president of the organization.
He called the plan "an extremely important document."
The town has already seen high interest.
Farrell said the town's call for volunteers went out late Monday, and by 11 a.m. Tuesday, 20 people had applied to be on the Steering Committee. She said the town needs 25 to 30 volunteers representing different areas of Mount Pleasant and different age groups.
The volunteers will attend monthly meetings for more than a year, starting in September, and also several open-house meetings for town residents, before submitting recommendations to the Planning Commission.
Often, comprehensive plans lay out goals for local governments that are broad and aspirational. Mount Pleasant's current plan, for example, calls for the town to "plan for safe and effective traffic flow throughout Mount Pleasant" and "provide a mix of housing types in a variety of price ranges."
Effective traffic flow and housing in various price ranges, however, have remained elusive.
A Comprehensive Plan is like the first level of a pyramid. It's the foundation, and the broadest level. Then come plans for particular areas, such as the Coleman and Ben Sawyer Boulevards Revitalization Master Plan approved by the town in 2008, which encouraged high-density development and pedestrian-friendly streets. Next come zoning regulations, which determine the allowed uses for property, and finally the planning and review process for development.
Bagwell said that, too often, people seem only concerned with what’s in their back yard.
"I think we need to be concerned about what’s happening in everybody’s back yard," he said. "We need to look at where are we going to be in 25 years."
Part of the challenge will be that people have different ideas about solutions and the best path forward. The plan for Coleman and Ben Sawyer boulevards was based on the idea that pedestrian and bike-friendly urban environments, in the right places, can reduce sprawl and broaden housing choices.
The large apartment buildings that resulted stoked anger that led to political change in the last Town Council election, followed by new restrictions on development and two moratoriums on apartments.
Some residents recently expressed outrage on Facebook over Indigo Square, a 39-acre commercial and residential development taking shape along U.S. Highway 17 just south of Towne Centre that includes a 440-unit apartment complex.
One reason apartments are being built there is that opposition from nearby subdivisions helped to kill earlier plans for big-box retail stores, in 2012, and a Walmart Supercenter, in 2004.