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Editorial: Collaborate, plan to safeguard Ashley River Historic District

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historic ashley river.jpg (copy)

Middleton Place was part of the area designated a National Treasure on Tuesday. Wade Spees/Staff

North Charleston is off to a promising start with its initial approval of a zoning overlay that would strengthen protections for its portion of the Ashley River Historic District. But anyone interested in preserving this uniquely scenic, rural and historic area — which should be everyone — must view this move as only a beginning.

North Charleston made its first annexation here several years ago and since has gained an expansive footprint, about 9,000 acres if it continues to prevail in a legal fight over its annexation of the undeveloped Whitfield tract west of Runnymede Plantation. The overlay is designed at least in part to answer critics who fear the city that once reveled in a “developer-friendly” image will allow development that erodes the historic district’s integrity.

The city’s new overlay district calls for more open space by clustering development, a 200-foot-wide buffer, trails and limited curb cuts onto S.C. Highway 61 — steps that seem likely to help avoid the more intense development found farther south along the highway, also known as Ashley River Road. While some wanted more robust public input before the overlay came up for a vote, there’s recognition that this document is a start and can evolve over the coming years.

Jason Crowley of the Coastal Conservation League has one intriguing idea of how the overlay might evolve: He said North Charleston could consider adding a program for transferring developer rights from the Ashley River district to a future overlay district along Rivers Avenue. That would help focus development along Rivers — the future site of the Lowcountry Rapid Transit system — and away from the scenic river, while compensating property owners in that area.

And while the city’s actions are commendable, the district’s long-term viability will be shaped not only by North Charleston but also by Summerville, Charleston and Dorchester and Charleston counties. That might be difficult in the short term, as the court battle over the Whitfield tract drags on, but increased regional cooperation would benefit everyone in the long term.

As George McDaniel, chairman of the Ashley Scenic River Advisory Council, told reporter Rickey Dennis: “How can growth and consistency be accomplished with five different jurisdictions unless they work together? Planning departments need to talk together.” The relatively new James Island Intergovernmental Council, which brings together several local governments with authority on that island, could serve as a model.

The area along S.C. Highway 61, particularly between Drayton Hall and Cooks Crossroads, is important because of its scenery and history. If planned well — and if there’s good cooperation between the many local governments that have jurisdiction here — this area also will be valued increasingly for the contrast it provides with the more developed parts of our region.

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