Residents of the West Ashley's Maryville neighborhood say they will challenge a state permit that could clear the way for further development on an uninhabited island near historically black communities along the Ashley River. But residents fear the island's purchase and subsequent improvements in recent years make it unclear if their objections will ever be heard.
Ghost Island, across Old Town Creek from Maryville in West Ashley, has been the center of a quiet development battle in recent months, after local physician Christopher Swain purchased the land in 2016.
Swain purchased the property with the intention of developing the land for what he said would be private use, building a small dock and bulkhead before slowing construction to ensure plans fell within city guidelines.
But a small group of local advocates, including real estate businessman Charlie Smith, challenged Swain’s plans due to the potential impact near Maryville’s Brown Cemetery and the community as a whole.
“You had to have at least 20 people or [the Department of Health and Environmental Control] wouldn't consider a hearing, but there was an overwhelming objection because people are concerned,” Smith said. “If you're going to put that level of service out there, people want to know what’s going there. And they have a right to know, especially if it's on a property that’s been on public record as a burial ground since 1813, some of it since 1801.” [image-3] The island has historically been the site of a burial ground of the family of John Lining, an 18th-century physician. The cemetery was shared with many others, including Revolutionary War heroes and colonial Charles Town leaders. Under South Carolina law, even abandoned and unmaintained burial sites are subject to protection.
“The thing that gets me, the people of Maryville get systematically excluded,” Smith said. “They’ve always known this was a cemetery, and they were kind of blindsided that the thing had a private sale in 2016, because it hadn’t occurred to them that it was something that was for sale in the first place.”
According to Maryville Neighborhood Association President Diane Hamilton, the community was left out of decision-making processes early on regarding the potential development, having received notification only days before the deadline for opposition. But that didn’t stop them from stepping up.
“They had three choices in boring into the island, including Justin Street, which would have been a more direct route for them to take,” Hamilton said. “But, they rejected that route because it contains a cemetery, Brown Cemetery. So my question was, ‘How do you reject that site because of a cemetery just to cross over into another burial place?’” [image-1] The island, whose name refers to its known history regarding buried dead, was once home to the Lining family’s mausoleum. After grave desecration at the hands of grave robbers and treasure hunters, remains were reportedly moved to a family plot in Camden. But no records of the move have turned up, according to state archaeologists.
Without comprehensive records to corroborate competing claims, it has been difficult for anyone to find support for their case. At least, without a proper investigation.
“Just like with any site that we have suspicion that human remains may be present, we have asked for a thorough investigation to see if remains exist near where construction is taking place,” said Charleston Planning Director Jacob Lindsey. “The owner did already have some surface investigation performed, and the city has requested some additional survey, to be sure that no human remains are being disturbed.”
No further investigation beyond the initial ground-penetrating radar, which detected no signs of underground structures, has been conducted.
According to Charleston officials, investigations like that are handled by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). But Elizabeth Johnson, the office's director of historic services, said the evaluations are the responsibility of the individual conducting them. The preservation office only gets involved if someone is applying for a permit or wants a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Johnson said.
Ghost Island was not on such a registry, unlike neighboring Brown Cemetery — previous owners and caretakers supposedly did not want to attract attention.
“Well, it is now on the list,” Smith said. “I put it there myself."
Despite all that, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control granted a permit to allow Dominion Energy to a 1,135-foot tube under Old Town Creek in West Ashley to provide power to Ghost Island.
Swain told The Post and Courier last year he planned to beautify the area for private use, but the plans have Maryville residents asking questions.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen or what debris would come up and contaminate the Maryville side or Ashleyville side,” Hamilton said.
“We’ve written to the mayor and all the members of city council as well,” Hamilton said. “We are concerned about the quality of life.”
If no challenges are brought within 15 calendar days of the July 1 public notice, the permit will become final. Hamilton has drafted a letter to voice the objections of the neighborhood in a Request of Final Review.
“If they turn it down, I don’t know what other options we have,” Hamilton said. “This may be our last effort here, depending on the results. We are trying to protect not only the history of Charleston, but the quality of life for those who live near the island and all along Old Town Creek.”