Mount Pleasant officials are right that the town’s growth isn’t sustainable. But they’re wrong about the reasons why.
Last week, Town Council gave unanimous approval to an ordinance that would strictly limit the number of residential building permits, cutting the town’s annual growth rate from about 3.5 percent to just over 2 percent.
A little more than 1,000 residential building permits have been issued so far this year, for example, according to town Planning Director Jeff Ulma. The new ordinance would cap the number at 600 per year — 420 single-family homes, 60 townhomes, 20 accessory dwelling units and 100 apartments.
Two large developments in the north end of the town — Carolina Park and Liberty Hill Farms — wouldn’t be affected.
A permit allocation cap is a blunt tool for slowing growth, and the most noticeable impact is likely to be an increase in already astronomical housing prices. The average home in Mount Pleasant has fetched more than $600,000 so far this year.
Interestingly, a provision in the proposed ordinance exempting low-income housing — defined as affordable to people earning up to 80 percent of the area median income — might actually work as a loophole that could boost affordable housing construction in the town. That would be a good thing.
But really, growth isn’t the specific problem Mount Pleasant needs to solve. Residents are generally more concerned about the traffic and other nuisances that the town’s sprawling growth pattern creates. And town officials should be more concerned about development not paying for itself in the long term.
To address the latter problem, Town Council greatly increased impact fees on new development starting in 2017. But again, that’s mostly just going to drive up costs. A one-time fee won’t — and legally can’t — cover the long-term costs of maintaining infrastructure and services.
And Mount Pleasant already has a lot of infrastructure and costly municipal services to maintain. That’s not necessarily because the town has grown so much, however. It has more to do with the way in which the town has grown.
“If you don’t build the house you don’t create the need for more infrastructure,” said Councilman Joe Bustos at a Town Council meeting last week.
At the most basic level, that’s true. But not all development needs the same amount of infrastructure. Single-family neighborhoods need more road per capita than townhomes, for example. And homes need more emergency responders, law enforcement officers and school buildings than businesses.
In that sense, the proposed permit allocation ordinance is actually counterproductive. It allows only the most infrastructure- and service-intensive residential development at the expense of almost everything else.
Worse, with a five-year time span, the allocation plan won’t really give town officials enough time to make very many meaningful changes. Roads take so long to build, for example, that anything not already well into the planning and permitting process won’t be finished before the proposed ordinance expires.
“Right now they sound like great buzzwords. ... ‘Let’s let the infrastructure catch up,’” said Councilman Tom O’Rourke last week. “But I think it’s our responsibility to catch the infrastructure up.”
He’s right. And it’s also Town Council’s responsibility to fix the root causes of Mount Pleasant’s challenges rather than continuing to pass measures that make the town less affordable without addressing the real problems residents face every day.