It was evident before 2015 that the parts of West Ashley near Church Creek had a flooding problem.
But that was also the first year in a three-year stretch of devastating storms — Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Tropical Storm Irma in 2017 — that battered Charleston and drove home the urgency of preparing for a wetter future.
January 2015 — months before Joaquin soaked the area — also happened to be when Charleston City Council gave the go-ahead on a development near Church Creek that would have added about 240 new single-family homes across 166 acres.
It wasn’t a great idea at the time. It’s an even less great idea now, at least without significant concessions to prevent flooding problems both at the site of the planned development and in other parts of the Church Creek basin nearby.
Charleston wisely implemented tougher stormwater rules for that part of the city in 2018. Harmony developers sued the city earlier this month, saying that the new rules shouldn’t apply because they got initial approval before that.
That’s an understandable argument, but a misguided one on a few levels.
South Carolina law grants “vested rights” for two years for a “site-specific development plan,” which can include a planned unit development like the one proposed for the Harmony property.
It has been more than two years since Charleston City Council gave the Harmony PUD the go-ahead. And Charleston officials haven’t actually changed the terms of that PUD — the “vested rights” part. They changed the stormwater rules for the Church Creek basin.
That means that Harmony developers are free to proceed with their plans under the PUD the city granted them in 2015, but they have to meet stricter stormwater requirements now than if they had built four years ago.
Obviously, that’s frustrating. It’s likely to add cost to the development; so much so that the property owners say they can’t make it financially feasible under the stronger rules.
But it’s also essential to the continuing livability of a large portion of outer West Ashley, which already struggles with flooding and which is likely to be subject to even more substantial challenges as climate change brings higher sea levels and wetter weather.
The existing threats are demonstrable and the future ones are based on sound science. And the city’s new Church Creek stormwater rules are similarly based on extensive observation and research. A comprehensive study of the area took several months and other investigations, like the Dutch Dialogues process, are ongoing.
The Church Creek basin is a uniquely problematic place for development, but the lawsuit over Harmony raises an important question with ramifications elsewhere: To what extent should city officials be able to change rules that impact vested projects when solid evidence demands a different approach?
The balance between property rights and the bigger picture of a successful city is a tricky one. But in this case, Charleston officials have a lot of thoroughly researched evidence and concerned, flooded home and business owners on the side of smarter development.