Disputes over growth in the rapidly expanding Charleston region are hardly new, but it’s refreshing to see Summerville Town Council take a more nuanced approach when considering an ill-advised annexation.
Rather than simply pitting an economic development argument against a no-growth one, council members are sensibly weighing the realistic costs and benefits involved in a proposal to absorb a large, mostly residential planned neighborhood into the town.
The owners of a property in unincorporated Berkeley County near the growing Nexton community asked Summerville Town Council this month to annex their land and rezone it as a planned unit development with up to 2,300 homes.
A report by the Journal Scene’s Joy Bonala quoted Councilman Walter Bailey as worrying that there wasn’t enough of a commercial component in the proposal to make it economically feasible.
“It’s going to take a lot of convincing for me to approve something of this magnitude without any real assurance that it’s going to pay off financially for the town,” he said.
Other council members echoed that concern. And they’re smart to do so. Residential development typically consumes more in public services and infrastructure than homeowners pay back in taxes, leaving commercial and industrial operations to cover the budget gaps.
In some cases, however, Charleston-area cities, towns and county governments have let that balance get out of whack by counting on perpetual growth to subsidize an unsustainable mix of large, mostly single-family neighborhoods with minimal non-residential components.
A very large, primarily residential development probably wouldn’t be a great deal for Summerville taxpayers. It probably wouldn’t be a great deal for Berkeley County taxpayers either.
But based on the county’s zoning for the property in question, it’s possible to build a lot of homes even without annexing into the town. And that raises another concern.
Berkeley County and Summerville aren’t legally the same entity, of course, but they overlap in important ways, and it would be naive to suggest that growth in one jurisdiction doesn’t affect residents in the other. Leadership in the town and the county needs to be on as close to the same page as practical.
And most county and municipal rules guiding growth should be updated to require a more sustainable mix of residential, commercial and industrial development.
Summerville is in the process of updating its Unified Development Ordinance, for instance, which is a periodic requirement for cities statewide. That’s a perfect time to make sure that the town is on a smart long-term path.
Summerville Town Council members are asking the right questions about growth. The Charleston region’s future depends on other leaders asking similar ones.