A community group on James Island will keep up its battle for trees along Maybank Highway, pushing the city to rework its controversial "gathering place" zoning, its leaders say.
And there are rumblings it might happen.
At least one Charleston City Council member is interested in talking about making changes to the zoning ordinance, a law designating specific areas for dense, "walkable" urban development. The city announced more than a year ago it is reducing emphasis on the zoning. The environmental advocate Coastal Conservation League, which supports the concept, is talking with Charleston officials.
"We're trying to add the pieces that make gathering place zoning work," said Dana Beach, executive director. "The concept depends on a setting that makes density work."
City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson said she is reviewing the ordinance and plans to discuss the idea of making it more flexible with planning staff and other council members. Council would have to approve any ordinance changes.
"The greater sentiment is that each specific area of the city has its own character," she said, and one-size-fits-all zoning categories don't allow the flexibility to hold on to that character.
On James Island, some 400 residents signed a petition and one appealed a zoning decision about cutting "grand trees" on a 22-acre, wooded property. That led recently to an agreement with the developer and Charleston planners to plant trees along a 5-foot buffer between the highway sidewalk and a planned complex of multi-story apartments.
Representatives of J.L. Woode, the developer, did not return phone calls asking for comment. Tim Keane, city director of planning, preservation and sustainability, confirmed the details of the agreement.
Trees also are to be planted across the street, and planners will pursue asking the state Department of Transportation to install a tree-lined median. The property sits at the north end of Maybank, behind the James Island Shopping Center on Folly Road.
Susan Milliken, of the Will You Miss These Trees group, called the agreement a positive first step, but said more needed to be done in the environmentally sensitive area.
The property, along with residential homes across the highway, currently gives the stretch of road a woodsy ambiance as it leaves the commercial district. The viewscape complements the tree-lined corridor along the Charleston Municipal Golf Course as the highway reaches the island on the southern end. Residents also are concerned about the impact of added traffic from an apartment complex on an intersection where traffic backs up.
Pat Welch, who lives across the highway from the proposed apartments, launched the petition and filed an appeal to a zoning decision that allowed the removal of 60 of 100 trees on the property, including trees along the roadscape. When the agreement was reached, the appeal was withdrawn.
Asked if he is happy with the outcome, Welch said, "The problem was we came late to the dance" to fight zoning approval for the project, and fighting the tree removal was the only recourse. "We now have our eyes on that project and any more that are coming to James Island. Our push is to have the city get this gathering place zoning off the books."
"Gathering place" zoning is designed to create highly compact, walkable developments that leave open and protected land. It's championed as "smart growth" to prevent sprawl. But it has sparked resistance when it's been implemented. The controversy on James Island followed opposition to a planned gathering place development abutting the aged Angel Oak on nearby Johns Island.
It's not the concept that neighbors oppose; it's the details. Welch and Milliken said it's suited to downtown areas like the Charleston peninsula, not more scenic areas like James Island. One of the zone's requirements is that buildings be placed no more than 5 feet from the property's street border. On Maybank, that meant the streetside grand trees had to go.
That sort of requirement "is an absolute disaster, especially in a place like James Island where you have wooded streets and settings," Welch said.