On the eve of an important decision

  • Thursday, August 14, 2014

We can’t solve problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein

Due to print deadlines, this column is being written prior to the outcome of perhaps the most important vote the Mount Pleasant Town Council has made since the town wrestled with where to bring I-526 into the town from the Wando River. Former town councilman Jimmy Bagwell, who has been an eloquent spokesman for lowering building height limits and protecting the look and feel of Shem Creek and Coleman Boulevard, says the current situation and dynamic is similar to the I-526 debate.

Outside interests wanted the interstate to reach Johnnie Dodds Boulevard/Highway 17 by bringing it extremely close to what was then Mount Pleasant’s biggest planned suburban neighborhood, Snee Farm. Bagwell recounts that, against what appeared to be all the powers-that-be, the residents made their voices heard and got a solution that worked for both the town and their neighborhood.

Writing this column in anticipation of town council’s vote on the planning commission’s recommendation to lower building height limits around Shem Creek and parts of Coleman Boulevard, it is tempting to predict the outcome based on what I have observed at the town council meetings and have seen stated by elected officials in social and traditional media. But I won’t.

But what I will do is assess, or lament, if you will, the current situation facing Mount Pleasant residents regardless of what happens at the meeting.

There is an unavoidable battle to keep the “pleasant” in Mount Pleasant. In the struggle over the current issue, the acronym “STOMP” has bubbled up. It stands for “Save Town of Mount Pleasant.” It projects the feelings of thousands who live here who value quality of life more than profits or textbook urban planning. The strength of their numbers is evidenced by the thousands of “Save Shem Creek” bumper stickers that have been distributed and the numbers joining Facebook groups such as Saving Shem Creek and Protect Coleman Boulevard and Our Old Village Neighborhood.

On one side of the issue, the powers-that-be, who want high-density growth in Mount Pleasant, tall buildings and basically transformational real estate development, and institutions and organizations that have weighed in saying as much. Who are they? The Charleston Trident Association of Realtors, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Coastal Conservation League (surprise!) and even the Post and Courier, which editorialized in favor of tall buildings and high density in Mount Pleasant but against a high-density, multi-story “gathering place” on Maybank Highway on James Island. Go figure.

The first three organizations all have well-paid staff whose jobs are to attend all the planning meetings as well as the town council meetings. They are full-time professionals who specialize in playing the game. Their job performance is evaluated on how well they get what their special interest organization wants. I’d like to ask the Coastal Conservation League if high-density, high-rise development is such a great idea for the iconic vistas of Mount Pleasant. Why don’t you advocate it for areas such as South of Broad in Charleston, Wadmalaw Island, or perhaps the village of Rockville? Are you suffering from NIMBY – “not in my back yard?”

As for the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors, they act more like a political party, as was exposed in a Dorchester County political battle as documented by Martha Hollis, a realtor there who opposed the organization’s stance. She wrote that the National Association of Realtors published a “Resource Guide for Realtors Associations 2014,” in which they used the term “Realtor Party” more than 30 times.

In Mount Pleasant, is it a coincidence that council members’ voting patterns on these issues seem to directly correlate with their association to the real estate industry, however indirectly?

There was a time in downtown Charleston when historic buildings were being torn down to make way for “progress.” Appalled by the loss of irreplaceable structures and the ambiance they bestow, historic preservation groups were formed by ordinary citizens. Now, the backbone of Charleston’s tourism industry is the look and feel that so easily may have been lost had a few concerned citizens not said, “Enough!”

So let “STOMP” do the same in Mount Pleasant. To paraphrase Churchill, it is not even the beginning of the end. The movement represents a different kind of thinking than the kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place, and you don’t have to be an Einstein to understand that.

Will Haynie has published more than 400 op-ed columns as a feature columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Hendersonville Times-News when it was owned by the New York Times. Find him on Twitter at @willhaynie or email him at Haynie.will@gmail.com.

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