MOUNT PLEASANT — Linda Page is seeking re-election as mayor of a fast-growing and prosperous town with low unemployment, high household incomes, low taxes and soaring property values.
That may sound like an incumbent's ideal recipe for re-election. But Mount Pleasant is also dealing with significant growing pains. Page's opponent, Will Haynie, claims many residents tell him they plan to leave the town because it's changed so much.
In recent years, apartment complexes, subdivisions and hotels have been popping up and the population has soared. Residents complain of traffic problems and crowded schools, and it seems no matter how many houses and apartments are built, the cost of owning or renting in the town just keeps rising.
"Neither I nor my opponent can stop growth," Page said during an interview over eggs and grits at a local eatery after one of her regular "coffee with the mayor" meetings with residents.
"Why are we so driven by fear?" she said. "The issues facing Mount Pleasant are all fixable."
'What do we gain by just saying no?'
Page, 58, said concerns about development are what prompted her to run for a Town Council seat in 2009. During her time as mayor the town adopted plans to better manage growth, and to improve roads and parks. She cast the tie-breaking vote in April to roughly quadruple development impact fees, which Haynie voted against because he thought the fee hike didn't go far enough. Page also supported the two-year moratorium on apartment developments approved in March.
Page said the plans Mount Pleasant adopted the year before she ran for Town Council to make Coleman and Ben Sawyers boulevards a more urban place concerned her. That's a point of view shared by many in the Old Village area, where Page lives, and some blame Page for changes they've seen take place.
In 2013, Page became mayor. She's seeking another four years, challenged by a councilman who has championed hard-line positions on development. For example, he supported unsuccessful attempts on council to temporarily halt residential development.
"What do we gain by just saying no?" said Page, citing the town's agreement with Liberty Hill Farm developer Stefan Hoyer as an example of gaining benefits through compromise. "We've been very strict in our development agreements."
As with many large developments, the 210-acre Liberty Hill Farm property off Rifle Range Road near Six Mile was not within the town limits but was in unincorporated Charleston County. If the town didn't annex the property, it could have been developed without town regulations or taxes. Instead, the town struck a deal, over Haynie's objections, that included getting an extra $1.5 million for road projects and public amenities.
Another development — construction of more than 400 apartments, stores and a hotel across from Towne Centre — has been visible to anyone driving on Highway 17, and some residents have been highly concerned. Page said the story behind the Indigo Square apartments is that neighboring communities, including Montclair, Snee Farm, Wando Lakes and Wando East, opposed earlier plans for a 400,000-square-foot shopping complex, as well as a 2004 plan for a Walmart Supercenter.
The property owner ended up in bankruptcy, and the plan the town approved with a new owner in 2015 was developed with involvement from adjoining neighborhoods.
That same year, the Town Council election saw several incumbents lose their seats as residents chose other candidates, including Haynie, associated with growth-related concerns and the group Save Shem Creek.
"Our commercial (building) permits have almost dried up since the new council was elected," Page said. "I have to say, my opponent doesn't seem very business-friendly."
Page said she's sometimes unfairly blamed for developments approved before she took office.
"An administration previous to mine spent $100,000 on a branding campaign telling people to 'come on over,' " said Page, referring to the town's marketing campaign during the recession.
And they did come over. The town has gained around 18,000 residents since Page was elected to council eight years ago, with a population most recently estimated by the Census Bureau to be 84,170 as of mid-2016.
Town tackling big projects
Page has been barraged with criticism on social media from Haynie, Save Shem Creek and others. When the town began clearing the way for large new drainage pipes along Coleman Boulevard that officials say will greatly improve water quality in Shem Creek, both Haynie and Save Shem Creek criticized Page on Facebook because Palmetto trees along the road were cut down.
Page has also faced allegations on social media that town projects or decisions were meant to aid the restaurant Page's Okra Grill, which she does not own (her niece owns the business). The mayor, an auctioneer, runs Linda Page's Thieves Market, a antique business started by her father. She said her lease for that property ends next year.
It's true that a portion of the town's recent growth, and the controversial 2008 Coleman Boulevard revitalization plan to make the Coleman and Ben Sawyer boulevards a more urban place, predate Page's time in the mayor's office or on council.
In some cases, substantial home construction seen in places such as Carolina Park was approved prior to the recession and sprang back to life when the economy improved. Many other developments were approved while she was in office.
Mount Pleasant is South Carolina's fourth-largest city, but unlike Charleston and North Charleston, it doesn't have a full-time "strong" mayor with broad powers and a six-figure salary. Rather, an appointed town administrator manages Mount Pleasant. The mayor is paid $42,000 yearly and has more duties and powers than a council member, but when it comes to a vote, the mayor has the same power as each of the eight council members.
Page said the town has tackled many important and costly improvement projects, and many more not yet visible to residents are under way. The widening of S.C. Highway 41 and the extension of Long Point Road to Rifle Range Road, for example, are both in the planning and design stages.
She grew up in Mount Pleasant and raised two children there, so Page has seen the changes. She said she's comfortable running on her record.
"I don't know what we haven't saved," Page said. "There's an energy, and a vibrancy, and I love it."