Johns Island Moratorium

Construction workers build houses in Woodbery Park off of Brownswood Road on Johns Island Thursday, February 8, 2018. Brad Nettles/Staff

The Johns Island Community Plan adopted by Charleston City Council in 2007 is an excellent document for the most part. Too bad it has just been sitting on a shelf since then.

Johns Island today looks nothing like the walkable, peaceful, sustainable community proposed more than a decade ago. It’s full of sprawling residential developments that empty car-dependent residents out onto overburdened once-rural roads increasingly lined with suburban strip malls.

The charm of the island isn’t completely gone. But it’s critically endangered.

So it makes sense for City Council to consider a six-month moratorium for development on Johns Island on Tuesday. City officials need to rethink the approach to building on the island before it’s too late, and a six-month breather would certainly help.

The frustrating part is that city officials have had 11 years to get things right. But the Community Plan did what too many insightful, forward-thinking Charleston area planning documents do — collect dust.

And during that time, thousands of new homes and dozens of new businesses have been built in the city’s latest outcropping of suburban sprawl while modest, necessary infrastructure upgrades have languished in bureaucratic red tape.

Six months won’t be nearly enough time to completely address the consequences of years of inaction. That will take decades. But it ought to be more than enough time to assess how things got so messy on Johns Island and come up with a better way to handle growth.

There are certain principles that should be self-evident. Development should focus on building community rather than moving cars as quickly as possible. Transit should be feasible in the future. Human-scale neighborhoods should mesh with the stunning natural beauty of the island. Connectivity should help vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists get around without cramming them all onto a handful of major roads.

That’s how to make a place livable. And evidence shows that taking incremental steps in that direction builds healthier, stronger cities. But it will take some surprisingly difficult and unpopular decision-making from local officials to get there.

Moratoriums aren’t that. They’re popular. The one that paused apartment developments on James Island last year had the enthusiastic support of island residents who are understandably fed up with traffic and overdevelopment.

But the end result of that six-month time-out — the Folly Road Overlay zoning — is not likely to solve James Island’s problems in the long-term. In fact, it’s essentially doubling down on the suburban development pattern that is partly to blame for so much traffic and congestion in the first place.

The Johns Island plan from 2007 offers a better approach. City officials would be wise to start implementing essential parts of it during the next six months and beyond, whether or not the moratorium passes.

A breather would be welcome on Johns Island. But real action is needed to ensure that a moratorium spurs a more livable future rather than just delaying the inevitable.