Photos by Rūta Smith Planning director Christopher Morgan said development on James and Johns islands could lead to stronger infrastructure | Photos by Ruta Smith

Areas along Maybank HIghway on James and Johns islands are primed for “dense development” according to the city’s proposed 10-year plan.

The plan makes note of areas at higher elevation for development in an effort to better inform future projects without exacerbating negative impacts of climate change, particularly flooding. The city’s planning department’s new land-use maps based on elevation are a first for the state.

“People are concerned that development they’ve seen in lower elevation areas has contributed to some of the flooding issues they’ve seen, particularly on the islands,” said Christopher Morgan, the city planning and sustainability director. 

The city planning commission held public input sessions for James and Johns islands, where Morgan said residents were in favor of prioritizing higher-elevation land for development, especially after feeling the impacts of development-exacerbated flooding elsewhere for the last decade. And advocates agree.

“It’s appropriate to recommend greater density on Maybank Highway,” said Jason Crowley, communities and transportation senior program director for Coastal Conservation League. “They appropriately stepped down density as they got lower down the corridor, where the elevation isn’t as high.” 

The new zoning plans stem from an overlay based on the 2008 Johns Island Community Plan, which had clear requirements for elevation and densities, Crowley said. “The whole purpose of creating that rhythm was to prevent the same sort of negative development that mucked up Folly Road, Savannah Highway and Ashley River Road.”

Recent construction on James and Johns islands hasn’t contributed as much to flooding due to modern stormwater standards, Morgan said, but previous developments weren’t up to the same standard. And planners are hoping this plan informs future projects not specifically listed, such as transit.

“These are areas that are ripe for improved mass transit service,” Morgan said. “It already has some limited service on James Island, but everyone’s hopeful to get it on Johns Island as well. Getting more density in those areas would help to encourage that.” 

But not everyone is on board. Some along the corridor are worried about having to compete with bigger stores which are usually attracted to areas with robust public services and higher density. 

“Food and bev, I suppose, it could only help,” said Daniel Moxley, manager of John’s Island brewery Estuary Beans & Barley. “But it would also change the entire vibe of businesses like ours — very much local, low-key and laid back. Having a lot more traffic would probably change what we’re going for here.”

Estuary Beans & Barley is a large new brewery that leans into the local island feel

Lowcountry Local First’s director of operations Lauren Gellatly said any development should be done with local business in mind.

“Oftentimes, developers attempt to attract local businesses after a building is complete, but their spaces are often too large, too expensive and not the right vibe for local businesses,” she said.

“I think any new development is going to look generally like what is being developed out on Maybank today,” Crowley said. “It’s going to continue to build out in the town and country approach described in the overlay.”

But not everyone is resting easy, Moxley said. 

“As somebody who lived downtown for six years, I’ve definitely felt the impact of it becoming overcrowded,” he said. “I moved out to James and Johns islands exactly for that reason — it being less crowded and not-so-developed. It’s something that’s kept me not just on the islands, but in Charleston as a whole.”

But Morgan assures that any construction along Maybank isn’t going to be reminiscent of the sort of development you’d see on the peninsula. 

“I dont think it’s going to be the wholesale change you might see along Meeting and King streets downtown,” he said. “Meeting Street is on the bus rapid transit line, the most recommended project of that intensity. These are not key transit routes, the Maybank corridor, but they could be a good bus route.” 

Charleston City Council is currently reviewing the Charleston City Plan after having given it first reading at a July 20 meeting, and it is expected to be adopted this September. Being a 10-year plan, it provides a zoomed-out view of local projects and plans, Morgan said. More specific and detailed information on particular areas of development may come later. 

While the comprehensive plan itself doesn’t change laws or regulations, it is assumed to inform lawmakers and leaders on future decisions. The full plan can be read online at charleston-sc.gov.