Johns Island Moratorium (copy)

Construction workers continue to build a new apartment complex at the corner of Main Road and Brownswood Road on Johns Island Thursday, February 8, 2018. Brad Nettles/Staff

Johns Island is growing rapidly. So are its infrastructure needs.

But the overwhelmingly residential growth on Johns Island doesn’t generate nearly enough tax revenue to pay for costly upgrades to stormwater drainage, road improvements and other necessities.

“Johns Island has rapid growth, but it doesn’t have the large-scale commercial development that would typically form the bulk of the tax base,” explained city Planning Director Jacob Lindsey.

So the planning department is exploring implementing a municipal impact district (MID) to help pay for the costs associated with a growing island population.

A MID is a special district in which the city assesses an annual fee on properties to help pay for infrastructure improvements in the immediate vicinity. It’s like an impact fee, but as an ongoing cost instead of a one-time charge.

Basically, it’s an infrastructure tax.

The problem is that developers won’t be paying the tax. Homeowners will. With real estate prices already troublingly high for many Charleston residents, anything that increases the cost of owning a home merits intense scrutiny.

And the MID proposal is only being considered because the growth of Johns Island is inherently unsustainable.

Bedroom communities can’t easily pay for themselves. Typical suburban residential properties require an enormous amount of municipal services and infrastructure, but pay relatively little in property taxes. Without a commercial or industrial tax base to fill the gaps, it’s tough for cities to make ends meet.

Some Lowcountry communities have relied on explosive growth to keep taxes low and services high, but that’s not a viable long-term plan. Just ask Mount Pleasant, where town leaders are wondering what to do when declining revenue from impact fees can no longer fill budget gaps.

The kind of growth happening on Johns Island is a quick boost and an eventual burden. A MID would mitigate some of the impact from residential overgrowth, but it is frustrating to have to put that strain on homebuyers when a more sensible solution — balanced planning — has always been on the table.

And none of this is new.

Charleston officials have had smart ideas for Johns Island growth for decades. The most recent detailed plan, which was approved in 2007, would have helped put the island on a much more sustainable path. But it has mostly been ignored.

The planning department is still working to crunch the numbers on the MID proposal. It’s unclear how much money the tax would be able to raise and how much is necessary for district-wide drainage and transportation projects. Certainly, a lot of money is needed, and not just on Johns Island.

Perhaps it’s only fair to ask future island residents to pay for the infrastructure and services they will need. But all of this could have been prevented — indeed, the need to raise fees could probably still be mitigated — by balancing out growth on Johns Island.

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