If growth came as slowly to Johns Island as last Wednesday’s Charleston Planning Commission meeting progressed, Gullah culture’s historic home place wouldn’t have to worry about losing its rural flavor. At a standing-room only public hearing, charged with emotional pleas from island residents bemoaning the loss of peace and quiet, the members of the commission chose to postpone voting on the adoption of the Johns Island Community Plan, officially endorsing the Urban Growth Boundary, and approving a new 125-acre neighborhood.

For commission members, their choices seem limited to “yes” or “delay,” especially in the case of a 430-unit neighborhood, Fenwick Hills II, proposed along Southwick Road off of Maybank Highway. Although the plan includes more than the minimum amount of green space and slightly less than the permitted 4.8 units per acre, the neighborhood will likely add just under 1,000 cars to the area, invoking fears of another traffic situation akin to Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley. Outlets to Maybank and Brownsville roads have not yet been negotiated with property owners by the developers.

“Next month, we legally have no choice but to approve it,” says commission member Charles Karesh. “Something needs to be connected if we’re going to put in 400 units. (Developers) don’t like it when we talk about the problems, but the traffic problem is going to get worse as building goes on.”

Until 7 p.m. on weekday evenings, traffic coming from James Island is typically backed up on Maybank all the way to the bridge. Johns Island residents are frustrated with the gridlock, but also highly protective of the old growth live oak trees that line the road. The Community Plan presents options like parallel roads to counter the problem, as well as encouraging bike and pedestrian thoroughfares in new communities.

The 55-page plan avoids significant mention of the I-526 extension, helping to fend off some of the fervor that erupted among Johns Island residents last spring when the county began to move forward on that project. Bill Saunders, a lifetime Johns Island resident and community leader who has been outspoken about his opposition to the interstate, stated at last week’s meeting that the people of Johns Island “feel helpless.”

“Growing up on Johns Island, we built our own boats, made our own nets, and had access to the water anytime. There is no water access for us now,” says Saunders. “I hear that all this good stuff will happen when they build 430 homes, but it’s not going to help me.”

Other residents complained that they’ve only been aware of the Fenwick Hills II project for a week, since small signs went up on a Southwick Road blind curve, despite a year of planning work between the city and developers. Commission member Karesh told Fenwick Hills representatives he was “appalled” that they hadn’t met with people in the adjacent community, raising a motion to push the vote back until the next meeting, which passed unanimously.

The Community Plan calls for at least 30 percent of new homes to be deemed “affordable housing,” but allows for denser growth than is currently the norm on the island. “If we were to develop the land in half-acre plots, the pressure would increase for the Urban Growth Boundary to be moved out and accommodate further growth,” says city planner Josh Martin. “We’re of the position that compact development within the boundary, and holding to the boundary, is a more sustainable pattern than sprawl and continuing to spread out.”

Johns Island farmer and preservationist leader Thomas Legare disagrees. “We should develop densely where infrastructure already exists,” he says, calling for “new ruralism” ideas on Johns Island that include multi-acre tracts. “I’On-type subdivisions won’t work out here. High-density development is just a way a few developers can put more houses on less land and make more money.”

Whether farmers and rural residents will be able to maintain their land as property taxes increase will require careful planning and protective legislation. Although the plan has been available on the city’s website since August, the Planning Commission questioned their full understanding of the document, demonstrating a willingness to take their time.

“It’s chicken and egg with us,” says acting Commission chairperson Sunday Lempesis. “We don’t know exactly how to do this. It’s like we’re trying to force something on the people of Johns Island and they don’t want it.”

At 6 p.m. on Wed., Sep. 26, the county hosts
a public meeting at the Berkeley Electric Cooperative (3351 Maybank Hwy) to discuss the widening of Maybank Hwy on Johns Island.

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