Mount Pleasant has a growth crisis, but not in the way that Town Council apparently thinks. Last week, Town Council unanimously approved a cap on new residences, which will limit new home permits to about 600 per year, mostly for single-family homes.
The new policy comes in response to public frustration that the town has been growing exceedingly quickly over the past several years, and that growth has started to impact the quality of life in Mount Pleasant.
Certainly, Mount Pleasant’s population is increasing at a faster pace than other parts of the Charleston region, and the town is significantly larger both geographically and in population than it was a few decades ago.
But population growth isn’t inherently a problem. In fact, it can offer a lot of opportunities for most towns, at least when local leaders step up to the challenge. Artificial caps on residential development, however, are likely to have some negative consequences.
The ordinance purports to “not exclude the less fortunate from the opportunity for suitable, reasonably priced housing in the town,” for example.
But a recent Post and Courier analysis by reporter David Slade found that the median home price in Mount Pleasant was well north of $500,000, which excludes some objectively “fortunate” would-be residents as well.
And although the permitting cap ordinance provides an exemption for affordable homes, cutting down on the supply of new housing will almost certainly drive up prices overall in Mount Pleasant, which could even have ripple effects across the rest of the region.
The ordinance also warns: “If the town’s population rate of growth is not adequately managed, Town Council may be forced to either significantly increase property taxes to respond to service and infrastructure demands or reduce the present levels of service.”
This is the real problem, of course. And town officials should be commended for recognizing it. But the permitting allocation plan will actually worsen Mount Pleasant’s mismatch between tax revenues and the services and infrastructure they provide.
Mount Pleasant has for too long relied on rapid growth to fund high-quality services and infrastructure without substantially raising taxes on existing residents. Each new neighborhood might consume more services and infrastructure than it pays for, but it doesn’t matter as long as the tax base continuously expands.
Of course, that pattern works only as long as growth can continue indefinitely. But that’s not politically tenable. Nor is it spatially possible in a geographically finite area without significant increases in allowable density, which is also an unpopular proposition.
So the town has two broad choices.
Mount Pleasant can either gradually start to fill itself in within its existing boundaries, increasing tax flow without substantially adding to the burdens of providing new roads, police and fire protection, sewers and other crucial services.
Or it can keep growing the way it has — with new single-family neighborhoods and strip malls connected by wide, expensive roads — and be forced to raise taxes or cut services when the space for that development pattern runs out.
In passing the permitting allocation ordinance, Town Council has doubled down on the second choice and artificially accelerated the timeline for a budget and services crunch.
Mount Pleasant leaders are absolutely right that there’s trouble ahead if the development status quo continues. But growth itself isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s how the town grows that matters.