The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that due to Charleston’s rate of growth, the Holy City is on its way to surpassing Columbia as the state’s most populous city by the end of the decade. Given that report, the current discourse regarding development, growth, and density within the Charleston metro area is sure to intensify.

If the current debate over the new Sergeant Jasper is any indication of how that discussion might progress, there needs to be increased sensitivity at the municipal decision-making level to ensure that individual property rights do not get trampled at the expense of public input from citizens. Public input is a crucial ingredient of any discussion involving the civic realm, but the input must be representative and not simply a knee-jerk opposition to growth.

Consider a recent Post & Courier article on the Board of Architectural Review meeting that took place on May 13. Thirty citizens came to the podium to speak about how the proposed 20-story Sergeant Jasper structure was too tall. Can it properly be said that those 30 voices provided an accurate barometer on how the citizens of Charleston really felt about the project? I don’t think so.

During B.A.R. hearings, where only a handful of people bother to appear either in favor or against most proposed projects, those voices can have a disproportionate effect on the decision-making process. By that measure, 30 people speaking in opposition to a project may seem like an overwhelming consensus, but in a city of 130,000 people, the opinions of 30 people should not be determinative.

Squeaky wheels often get the grease, and there is a small, but vocal contingent of the Charleston populace that will resist growth at every turn. They are against the expansion of 526. They do not want increased density in downtown areas. They do not want development in rural areas. Yet with announcements like the one given by the Census Bureau, and the pending arrival of companies like Volvo, not to mention the expansion of Boeing, more growth is coming. If developers cannot build up within the city center,and are prohibited from growing on the outskirts due to concerns over sprawl, green space, or lack of infrastructure, the fight for livable space becomes even more pronounced. It seems that in those instances special emphasis should be given to the merits of a proposal and the interests of the property owner rather than the intensity of the opposition. Or to put it another way: volume and fervor should never trump merit in any public debate over a project.

To the extent any person or group is determined to be a “squeaky wheel” against growth, traffic, or development, those voices will always show up at meetings in relatively greater numbers than those who favor a project. The vast majority of citizens who are fine with a development do not have a compelling interest to appear in public and declare their approval. More often than not, the proponents of a given development will be the property owners who have hundreds of thousands or even millions vested in a property. The opponents will have no pecuniary interest in the project, but they will have very strong opinions about what seems too tall or too big and what will create traffic or lessen it.

If permitting Charleston to grow in a way that can responsibly accommodate the city’s inevitable population surge is a goal of local decision-makers, then not giving undue deference to the naysayers should be a principal consideration when future projects are presented.

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