It doesn’t take much more than common sense, perhaps a little map reading or a tramp in the soggy woods north of Bees Ferry Road, to know that the 3,000-acre housing project Long Savannah and the next-door expansion of Village Green will have to shed or store a lot of stormwater runoff somewhere. But there’s only so much you can do with just a few feet of elevation change at high tide in the Lowcountry.
So what looked like a great plan for the build-out of West Ashley more than a decade ago — the city would get a big new park and establish an urban growth boundary in the plantation-rich Ashley River Historic District — is now being questioned, even by some of the environmentalists who initially endorsed it. What changed?
Quite simply: our awareness of the rising sea and what we know about flooding locally.
We’ve learned that Church Creek, without some massive engineering, can’t handle any more water than it already funnels slowly into the Ashley River. The railroad line that runs just south of Bees Ferry acts as a virtual dam. And the natural course of the creek, which used to shed some runoff into the Stono River via what is now Lake Dotterer and Long Branch Creek, also has been altered by road construction and other manmade structures.
We’ve had to tear out townhomes in nearby Shadowmoss Plantation because of repeat flooding.
We’ve had to overhaul stormwater and landfill rules in such a way that developers will have to be responsible for just about every drop of rain that falls on rooftops, driveways and new roads. For instance, Charleston’s stormwater rules, which took effect July 1, essentially prohibit any development north of Bees Ferry Road from increasing the total volume of water in Church Creek for 72 hours after it rains. And developers who want to fill land for homes will have to remove 1.25 cubic yards of soil for every cubic yard they import: Fill-and-build is over and done.
So a lot has changed since the 2007-08 recession put Long Savannah and Phase II of Village Green on hold. Flooding has become markedly worse. We got rain-bombed in 2015. And we since have been grazed by a few big Atlantic storms that didn’t do much damage by way of surge but dropped enormous amounts of rain.
Now Long Savannah developer Taylor Bush, who for years has had a lock on the land and essential development rights to build up to 4,500 homes, is gearing up again, though any tree clearing and earth moving is still probably more than a year away.
Charleston’s stormwater chief, Matthew Fountain, says he’s confident in the city’s new set of regulations. A big test will come, however, when the developers present their stormwater plans to the city in order to get needed permits to begin construction.
“The shift in the city,” Mr. Fountain says, “is that it’s no longer ‘Do the best you can.’ It’s ‘You must get it right.’”
The Sierra Club and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation are ready to go to court over a state permit that would allow what they contend would be destruction of some 200 acres of wetlands. Developers say they will more than make up for that by preserving more than 1,600 acres of open land, much of it a park, and by preserving 1,900 acres of freshwater wetlands.
Long Savannah might end up with a large recreational lake. Taylor Bush is also working to come up with a way to divert any additional runoff to the Stono River.
Mr. Fountain says the city also is looking at ways to restore some flow in that direction, but that work depends on state and federal grants and is wrapped up in separate plans to prevent flooding in the Church Creek basin. Plus, the slight elevation change isn’t a problem just because of high tides but also because of a high water table just a few feet below ground. Any work to shed runoff to the Stono would involve restoring flow under Glenn McConnell Parkway and in the narrow waterway to Long Branch Creek.
Let the developers figure it out and bear the costs. It’s not the city’s responsibility to re-engineer an entire flood basin to accommodate them. The city, which must hold fast to its stricter stormwater and fill regulations, has already committed taxpayers to help sort out the area’s existing problems.