A surprising number of people in Mount Pleasant — which at this point is anything but rural — still rely on septic tanks rather than Mount Pleasant Waterworks.
And while the cost of a sewer connection is certainly a factor, there are other concerns that need to be addressed in order to transition residents away from septic systems that just aren’t practical or safe in a large and growing town.
The main issue is that many of the people still using septic tanks aren’t technically residents of Mount Pleasant even though in many cases they are surrounded by it. The town is full of unincorporated “doughnut holes” under the jurisdiction of Charleston County.
Connecting to the sewer system requires annexing into the town, which is a nonstarter for both economic reasons — taxes and property values would likely go up — and for cultural and historic ones — the larger doughnut holes are historic black communities surrounded by an overwhelmingly white town.
Mount Pleasant’s reason for requiring annexation in exchange for a sewer connection isn’t necessarily so much about the tax revenue, however, as it is about control.
A sewer hookup allows more intensive development than would be possible with a septic system, and Mount Pleasant is rightly wary that Charleston County won’t be as exacting as the town is in its standards for what gets built where.
This push-and-pull scenario has most recently played out in a debate over what to do with the Peachtree Plaza shopping center on Coleman Boulevard. It’s an aging strip mall on septic tanks, and it’s in a doughnut hole.
The people who own Peachtree Plaza asked to annex into the town, connect to the sewer system and build a fairly large mixed-use development. Mount Pleasant officials balked at the proposal. So the developers turned to the county last year for permission to build a four-story storage building instead.
That’s not an ideal use for a centrally located, relatively walkable piece of land near Shem Creek, and the developers know it. The self-storage proposal was viewed as a negotiating tactic. It’s still not clear what’s going to get built there.
This mess could have been largely avoided, however, by better aligning Charleston County’s zoning with Mount Pleasant’s.
Instead, Charleston County Council recently proposed an ordinance that would prevent annexation from being a prerequisite for a sewer connection — while also eventually requiring that almost every piece of land in the county be hooked up.
It wouldn’t even allow a water utility to require “consistency with a municipal comprehensive plan” as a compromise rather than annexation.
That’s an unnecessarily blunt way to handle the matter, and one that would likely create more problems than it resolves.
And while zoning coordination wouldn’t alleviate all of the concerns related to transitioning Mount Pleasant away from septic tanks, it can’t hurt. Really, it’s a good idea regardless — and an important one anywhere there are doughnut holes.