MOUNT PLEASANT — East of the Cooper River, many residents want to keep rapid development from changing the character of their communities, and that's led to tough restrictions in the oldest part of Mount Pleasant.
However, the same Town Council that this year limited new buildings on Coleman and Ben Sawyer boulevards to three stories recently approved zoning changes to allow a 55-foot hotel next to a historically black residential community.
It's the second 55-foot hotel to be approved on Hungryneck Boulevard right behind homes in the unincorporated Four Mile community, homes that in many cases have been passed down through generations. In both cases, exceptions were made to zoning rules specifically created to protect that community, and each proposed hotel was allowed an extra 20 feet of building height.
"What the town of Mount Pleasant is doing is systematically destroying the black community," said Rev. Oliver Burns Jr., president of the Four Mile Community Association. "The people who live here grew up here, and their families grew up here."
He and other residents watched as Hungryneck Boulevard was created, slicing through the middle of Four Mile. Then U.S. Highway 17 was widened, and an overpass was created so that Interstate 526 can exit directly onto Hungryneck. Now, sandwiched between U.S. 17 and Hungryneck not far from the highway off-ramp, sits a remaining slice of Four Mile where modest homes face unpaved Duke Street.
“That hotel is going to be right in our backyard," said Anthony Freeman, who operates a consulting and tax preparation business, and lives on Duke Street. "It seems like as soon as a developer asks, they change the zoning."
Mount Pleasant government views Hungryneck Boulevard, with its direct connection to I-526, as a gateway to the center of town — a direct route from the highway to the largest shopping area, Towne Centre, and the Isle of Palms Connector.
Councilman Mark Smith voted against lowered height limits on Coleman Boulevard in September, and he joined a 5-4 vote this month raising the height limit for the most recent hotel on Hungryneck. For Smith, it's about private property rights, but he also said four-story hotels are a good fit in that location.
"When you come into the town from I-526, on an elevated off-ramp, four-story hotels on the left side of Hungryneck Boulevard are appropriate," Smith said. "This is now the middle of our town, and a commercial corridor."
A special zoning known as an overlay district, meant to protect the Four Mile community, was created after Hungryneck Boulevard bisected the community.
Four Mile is one of several freedmen's communities in East Cooper created by and for former slaves in the decades following the Civil War and Reconstruction. "During the 1890s, owner Theodore Stoney divided the land into small parcels, sold chiefly to African-American farmers, which now make up the community of Four Mile," a Mount Pleasant historical marker erected in 2009 says.
The protective zoning rules limited the size of new commercial buildings and set a 35-foot height limit. The town's zoning code says: “The overlay district and surrounding area is part of an historically African‐American settlement area known as the Four Mile Community. The community is a part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Because of this status, this overlay district is intended, first and foremost, to protect and promote residential uses, and to foster the support activities that help to sustain a desirable quality of life and that are part of the traditional cultural heritage."
Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Gary Santos cast the lone vote against the first hotel property rezoning in 2015 and voted against the one in December as well. The makeup of much of the Town Council changed between the two votes after the 2015 elections.
“To me, it’s very important that we have those overlay districts," Santos said. "Unless in my mind there’s a very important reason, that’s beneficial to the whole community, I’m not going to just let somebody opt out of that, and I don’t think a hotel gets there."
Santos said if he lived in Four Mile, he'd be upset, too. Both hotel properties were rezoned to escape the protective overlay zoning rules.
Burns, a pastor at Olive Branch AME Church, grew up in Four Mile within walking distance of his grandmother's home. He spent 10 years in New York as a young man but returned and currently lives in a home along a dirt road, where he raises rabbits and chickens — a practice Burns said would not be allowed if he annexed his property into Mount Pleasant. (The town allows chickens, but not roosters).
"Does my community have to change, to look like Snee Farm or the rest of Mount Pleasant?" Burns asked. "What about how I want to live?"
Quincy Wilson, whose home is directly behind a planned four-story Tru Hotel, also traveled extensively while serving in the Army, then returned to Four Mile.
"I've been around the world four times," he said, "but I always wanted to come back here."
In the most recent Town Council vote, the four councilmen most closely affiliated with the Save Shem Creek group that favors restricting development — Santos, Joe Bustos, Will Haynie and Jim Owens — all voted against rezoning the latest hotel.
“I don’t know why we would be raising something from a 35-foot height to 55 feet when it’s in an overlay district, presumably for a good reason," Haynie said.
Smith said the community residents "have a fair and valid concern," and they also have properties that have grown much more valuable due to the surrounding development.
“As property owners, they have some decisions to make," Smith said. "That’s their choice."