Whoever wins the mayoral and city council races next month will have their hands full trying to govern this diverse, dynamic, sprawling town. That goes without saying, but we got a loud, clear wake-up call with the release last month of the Citistates report.
The Citistates Group, led by syndicated columnist Neal Peirce and urban affairs expert Curtis Johnson, came to Charleston over the last year to study urban growth and its impact on the tri-county area. They interviewed and met with citizens, leaders, and developers in Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester counties as they have done in two dozen other explosive Sunbelt cities over the last 20 years.
The Post and Courier printed a summary of their report (see the entire report at www.charleston.net/news/citistates) in segments over four Sundays in September and October. Most of what they said came as no surprise to those who have watched traffic thicken and slow on our streets and roads, who have seen poor and black people driven off the peninsula by gentrification and farmers driven off Johns Island by luxury housing developments.
The Lowcountry’s historic charm, its fragile wetlands and forests, its very way of life are threatened by too many people and too little planning. More than 130,000 new houses have been permitted in the metropolitan area and many people are wondering where they are going to go and who is going to pay for the new roads, schools, and other infrastructure. As bad as things are on the peninsula, Peirce and Johnson write, the Summerville area is one of the most acute cases of growth overtaking the capacity of the schools that they’ve seen.
Developers have been allowed to build what they want, where they want, and citizens have long suspected that their leaders were under the thumb of powerful interests. “Justified or not,” Peirce and Johnson write, “there’s a suspicion … that officials are making quiet, quick deals with developers, behind city or county council doors.”
One of the things the writers found most disconcerting about local government is how balkanized it is in the face of these enormous challenges: “Rather than act in concert, the region’s politicos have often championed their individual jurisdictions alone, engaging in annexation wars, complete with fiery rhetoric and lawsuits, to seize tax-productive territory.” They point to the absurd battle over the Watson Mill development, “with three governmental entities, two landowners, the Coastal Conservation League, and a slew of lawyers all suing each other.”
But if the glass is half empty, it’s also half full, as the authors point out. First, the region has a long tradition of land conservation. Around the city we have the enormous ACE Basin land-protection plan, the Francis Marion National Forest, and recent transactions that have preserved land on the sea islands and in the Ashley River Plantation District.
“The cumulative result,” they write, “is a remarkable protective belt of distinctive Lowcountry territory that can’t be gobbled up for growth — a land protection effort, largely led by private citizens and groups like the Lowcountry Land Trust, that few other regions of America even come close to emulating.”
There is evidence that area residents are ready to get serious about mass transit. “The focus of interest is in commuter-rail service, especially the proposed Summerville-North Charleston-downtown Charleston line,” they write.
It seems that people are also ready for stricter zoning and land-use regulations. Smart-growth planning would mean smaller roadways that connect more places: “Our goal is to disperse traffic….
“By avoiding the typical subdivision pattern of a single exit,” they write, “more destinations will be easily accessed by foot or bike, or shorter car rides.”
As unlikely as it seems, state government is actually taking a positive role in the battle to control development. Not only did Gov. Mark Sanford convene a land-use conference in Charleston last March, but in May the General Assembly passed a Priority Investment Act, which requires cities and counties to identify where the money is coming from to pay for the infrastructure that new development requires — and to develop a 10-year plan for such projects.
“None of this forces what’s called concurrency — legally denying new residential subdivisions until roads and schools to accommodate them are in place or on track to completion,” the Citistates Group reports. “But throwing sunlight on the process enables robust public debate and might make a real difference.”
There are many other recommendations in the Citistates report, including building smaller schools closer to urban centers, providing more affordable housing, and developing strong neighborhood organizations as the foundations of strong cities. It will take years to carry out this plan, but Charleston voters might start by asking candidates in next month’s municipal election if they have read the Citistates report and what they think of it. If they don’t have the right answers, maybe they don’t belong in public office.