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Editorial: Don't rush North Charleston Ashley River overlay plan

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North Charleston is expected to vote Thursday to officially annex a 1-acre piece of land along S.C. Highway 61 opposite Runnymede Plantation. Opponents worry the annexation spells development along the flood-prone and traffic-heavy historic highway. Brad Nettles/Staff

Ever since North Charleston annexed westward across the Ashley River, some have feared the city would allow more intense, inappropriate development in one of the nation’s largest historic districts — an area that the National Trust for Historic Preservation twice has listed as endangered.

While some city officials bristle against the notion that North Charleston cannot bring about appropriately planned, contextual development, the fear is more than understandable. North Charleston consistently describes itself as business friendly, including to developers, and robust business activity certainly is good for the economy and for residents. It’s helped the city grow into a regional economic powerhouse.

But skeptics rightly wonder what the property owners might get by joining North Charleston that Dorchester County or the city of Charleston wouldn’t be willing to offer.

This fall, North Charleston has its best chance yet to prove those doubters wrong by approving a new zoning overlay that would set additional parameters for what the city will and won’t allow in this sensitive part of the city.

The stakes are high: The area along S.C. Highway 61 from Drayton Hall to Cooks Crossroads is unique and important nationally. It includes a National Scenic Byway, a State Scenic River, two National Historic Landmarks and many more historic sites in a large National Register District. Its natural beauty also supports wildlife habitat and helps minimize flooding.

The overlay ordinance is intended to balance growth demands with environmental protection, for instance conserving more open space by clustering development. It also would provide a 200-foot-wide opaque buffer, a trail system and limited curb cuts onto Highway 61. And it would encourage interconnectivity between neighboring parcels to limit the need to get on the main highway.

There’s a lot to like in the proposal, but some remain concerned the overlay is being rushed before they can suggest ways to make it even better. In fact, the city’s Planning Commission voted recently to deny the draft after some stakeholders asked for additional time to comment, which was a reasonable request. For instance, there could be more discussion with Dorchester and Charleston county planners on steps toward ensuring continuity and how the overlay would work with East Edisto, which owns large easements in the area. Importantly, they also want more detail on how the overlay would balance the interests of large property owners with those of smaller ones.

“This could be an opportunity for North Charleston to shine,” says George McDaniel, chairman of the Ashley Scenic River Advisory Council. “The good news is that people care about the future of the region. This isn’t Atlanta or Charlotte. We’ve got to get this right. There are no mulligans.”

The future of this rural, historic corridor will be shaped by many factors, including the outcome of a pending lawsuit challenging one of North Charleston’s most recent large annexations, that of the undeveloped 2,200-acre Whitfield tract west of the highway. Those suing the city are doing so in part because they believe this annexation didn’t meet the letter of the law, but since the property owner involved asked to be annexed, surely the suit also is fed by concern about what the city might allow to happen there.

A new, improved zoning overlay might not calm all those concerns or lead to a dismissal of the suit, but it would send the strongest signal yet that North Charleston can be a help — not a hindrance — to the satisfactory evolution of this fragile, historic area. That’s why the city should take its time to ensure that the public, affected property owners and other interests have sufficient time to understand and comment on the new zoning overlay. There’s no reason to rush.

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