Watson Hill (copy)

North Charleston will consider a rezoning request as the first step toward a major new development on an isolated piece of rural land west of the Ashley River.

On Monday, the North Charleston Planning Commission will consider a rezoning request that would allow as many as 1,000 residences to be built in a dense community in the middle of an entirely rural area next to the Ashley River Historic District.

Unfortunately, the alternative would be even worse.

The rezoning request would affect a 4,000-acre tract west of S.C. Highway 61 in Dorchester County known as Watson Hill that was annexed into North Charleston years ago to avoid more restrictive zoning under the county.

The property is part of the East Edisto Conservancy, which limits development to one unit per four acres, hence the 1,000 homes.

But rather than sprawling a new neighborhood of hundreds of homes across the entire rural tract, the Coastal Conservation League and the National Historic Trust worked with the property owners to come up with a plan for a dense, mixed-use community that would leave the vast majority of the land untouched.

That’s why the owners need a zoning change from North Charleston, and the Planning Commission should grudgingly grant it considering that the alternative would allow the same number of homes to be built across a far larger area of ecologically sensitive land.

But calling the planned development the least bad option would still be generous.

The proposed site for this entirely new and necessarily self-contained community is surrounded by forests, swamps and wetlands. There are no roads, no sewer lines, no fire or police service, schools, grocery stores or any other kind of infrastructure or amenities.

It’s 18 miles to downtown Charleston via the nearest existing routes, 11 miles to downtown Summerville, and 10 miles around the Ashley River to the rest of North Charleston.

Allowing any kind of development in the area would almost certainly put an incredible burden on North Charleston taxpayers, who would be on the hook for new services and infrastructure. And the location of the new community suggests it would put pressure on much of the rest of the region as well.

There also will be important questions about commercial restrictions and design standards, which must be sturdy enough to protect the area’s unique character. The answers will be of keen interest to nearby residents as well as those in the greater community concerned about malleable, developer-friendly rules.

The land west of Highway 61 is also part of a critical system of wetlands that affect drainage and stormwater runoff miles away.

A denser, town-like community similar to what the local conservation community has proposed would help minimize negative impacts by leaving more land untouched and cutting down on car trips, for example.

But the proposed development would still almost certainly exacerbate the many challenges related to suburban sprawl that already face the region.

North Charleston ought to be more focused on revitalizing its many long-neglected neighborhoods and areas that are currently underused. Doing so would make more economic sense and improve the quality of life for existing residents.

Instead, North Charleston officials already are waging a high-stakes annexation battle against Charleston over a nearby tract that would potentially allow yet another massive development west of the Ashley River. That’s disappointing.

Expanding into isolated, untouched territory rather than making the best of its already extensive assets would almost certainly prove a losing strategy for North Charleston.

North Charleston’s population is growing, but its city limits don’t necessarily have to grow with it.

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