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Mayors: Lowcountry struggles to change but retain character

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North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey (from left); Charleston planning director Jacob Lindsey; and Mayors Will Haynie of Mount Pleasant, Wiley Johnson of Summerville and Michael Heitzler of Goose Creek discussed ways to deal with the Lowcountry's explosive growth at the Charleston Regional Business Journal Power Lunch on Thursday. (Photo/Kim McManus)

Lowcountry leaders agree that the region’s unexpected and tremendous growth in recent years has left municipalities struggling to meet the needs of the additional residents while retaining the quality of life they demand.

“I don’t know how good of a crystal ball anyone has had on growth and development over the last decade or two, but I don’t know that anyone really saw this coming,” Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie said during the Charleston Regional Business Journal’s Power Lunch last month at the Charleston Area Convention Center.

The luncheon had a capacity crowd before the North Charleston Business Expo got underway at the Charleston Area Convention Center. (Kim McManus)Haynie was joined on the panel by Mayors Keith Summey of North Charleston, Michael Heitzler of Goose Creek and Wiley Johnson of Summerville, as well as Charleston planning director Jacob Lindsey.

The panelists agreed that cities are challenged to provide sufficient housing, infrastructure, services and amenities to support the influx of people but also try to maintain the feel and sense of place. It is a topic that has dominated the Lowcountry conversation in recent years — how to keep pace with the growth in people and industry but avoid losing what made the area attractive to begin with.

Johnson said he wants Summerville to continue attracting residents with its more affordable home prices while still maintaining the “small-town feel” associated with its Main Street area.

“It’s almost impossible to plan fast enough, and it’s certainly not possible to put things into practice fast enough, but we’re trying. ... We are making progress. However, we are certainly very, very aware of the quality of life we need to maintain in Summerville,” he said.

Haynie said Mount Pleasant is experiencing a similar struggle, noting that the town’s population surge to about 85,000 people has left many of its residents wanting to pull back on new development and incoming residents.

He said Town Council’s controversial decisions to raise impact fees on new construction and to enforce a multifamily building moratorium were in response to that desire from some in the town. Others are strongly in favor of density and more multifamily housing in the hopes that residents will live and work within the same community rather than commuting.

Haynie said the quickening pace of development and increasing density in Mount Pleasant also drove the moratorium decision.

“That’s a lot to absorb. That’s a lot on your infrastructure,” he said, adding that council will decide next March whether to continue it.

Goose Creek — now the eighth-most-populated city in the state, according to census data — is battling infrastructure pressure as well.

Heitzler said his city is focused on delivering more residential services to its growing population, specifically expanding its fire department. He said the need for multifamily projects is also growing, though he noted that such projects can create issues with people who want a small-town feel with single-family homes and less traffic.

“We’re going to have more and more of it. ... Without multifamily, we’re not going to have the labor force that we’re going to need to serve our new industries that are burgeoning within our town. ... We need to have labor close by ... instead of it running up and down the interstate,” he said.

Lindsey, Charleston’s director of planning, preservation and sustainability, said Charleston faces many of the same issues as its neighbors, such as rising home prices and insufficient funding for road improvements; but it also grapples with how to deal with rising sea levels and flooding streets. Charleston had 51 flooded days that were sunny last year, meaning flooding occurred for some reason other than rain.

Summey said the region’s No. 1 hurdle stemming from its growth is its inability to deal with infrastructure deficiencies, specifically because many roads are owned and maintained at the state level, not the municipal level. He said the lack of ample funding for road improvements, and especially road expansions, continues to plague the Lowcountry.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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