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The Urban Growth Boundary – a line in the sand or political smoke and mirrors?

Lee Walton

Since late 2005, Long Savannah Plantation, the largest in a recent gaggle of proposed planned unit developments (PUD’s) in the area bounded by the Ashley and Stono Rivers, has promised to be the first serious challenge to the integrity of Charleston County’s Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). This 3,050-acre, 4,800 home Mega-PUD, when first unveiled, was to be one of the largest ever proposed in the Lowcountry, second only to Kiawah Island in Charleston County and approximately the same size as Berkeley County’s Daniel Island. However, a vexing problem confronting its developers is that only 230 acres, or less than 8% of its total area, is located within the County’s higher density urban side of the UGB; most of the remainder has rural agricultural zoning which limits development densities to as low as only one dwelling for every ten acres.

There are also the other pesky little engineering and environmental problems dictating the need for critical urban scale public services, higher urban densities and the absolute necessity for public sewer service in order to develop at profitable densities. With more than 1,400 acres of legally protected tidal marsh and freshwater wetlands and the remaining highland seriously impacted by poor soils, high water tables and extensive phosphate mining that plowed-up the topsoil a century ago, the developers would be unlikely to get on-site septic tank and tile field systems approved for even half of the 1,000 homes allowable under the current County zoning.

Consequently, and as no surprise to anyone knowledgeable of Charleston politics, the developers and their trusted pettifogger Lucas Padgett (coincidently, the legal counsel for Charleston Water Systems and the folks that supply public water and sewer to new development), turned to none other than Charleston’s own deal-estate development king, Mayor Joe, and his trusted side kick and rain-maker for Daniel Island, Dana Beach, to bless their efforts and, you guessed it, annex the whole 3,050 acres into the City of Charleston. There’s just one catch – even Joe won’t annex it unless it’s inside the UGB. Actually, he could annex it now and probably would, except such an overt step would be viewed as bad political form in the middle of his 9th term mayoral election.

The UGB, established six years before as the lynch-pin of the County’s much maligned Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) was intended to clearly establish a line of demarcation between future dense urban development and protected rural, predominately agricultural portions of the County. Now, after two and a half years of political intrigue and deal-estate development gamesmanship, Long Savannah is poised make good on its threat to become the precedent setting case that would render the UBG worthless and indefensible. With a wink and nod, both Mayor Joe and Dana Beach have both publicly said they are not opposed to moving the UGB to allow annexation of this proposed Mega-PUD. Wasn’t it amusing to listen to these same two self-proclaimed regional planners a few days ago as they spewed forth their hypocritical rhetoric at the Governor’s recent conference on growth management in the Lowcountry?

Let Long Savannah be the Line in the Sand! Now is as good a time as any to test the mettle and integrity of County Council. What happens with Long Savannah will send a clear, unambiguous message to those on Johns and Wadmalaw Islands. Will County Council defend the UGB as the last bastion of defense against urban sprawl and the wasteful proliferation of public infrastructure, or will its members join the ranks of political hacks now aligned with Riley and his thoroughbred stable of deal-estate development cronies?.

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