It's funny to think that there was a time when the City Paper needed to let our readers know what the term "urban sprawl" meant, but that's what we had to do the first time we wrote about the Coastal Conservation League way back in 1997. "People weren't conscious of what urban sprawl was, what its problems were, that it's expensive for taxpayers, that it's obviously bad for the environment, that it's arguably ... not good to build communities either," says Dana Beach, the executive director of the CCL, an environmental organization he founded back in 1989. "So in every respect, it's a damaging phenomenon and has been a damaging phenomenon."
Back then, there was no Charleston County Comprehensive Plan. It wasn't passed until 1999, and the zoning code that actually implemented the plan wasn't passed until 2001. "Before that, it was pretty much open season on whatever land was anywhere in the county available for whatever density of development, and if you were lucky, you could convince somebody to put a sewer and a waterline to it," Beach says as he goes through bound versions of the group's newsletters in the Conservation League's East Bay Street office.
Thanks to the CCL and others, Charleston hasn't become the sprawling monstrosity that group once predicted. More land has been protected or, at the very least, down-zoned from three units per acre to six. Growth still happens, and it always will, but CCL is working to encourage high-quality, functional development that takes into account bicycle and pedestrian traffic, an efficient use of land, and inspirational treatment of public spaces. And sprawl isn't their only concern. "We have gone from being focused primarily on land-use planning and water quality, and we did some forestry work, to expanding our work to energy policy, agriculture and agricultural policy, and actual distribution of produce," he says. This year, CCL opened GrowFood Carolina as part of their agricultural program, providing small and medium-sized farmers the opportunity to market and sell their produce locally. "It has been more successful than I ever dreamed that it would be," Beach says. "I didn't really know anything about it. We jumped into it pretty much unaware of what we were doing."
The Coastal Conservation League now has a better understanding of the complexity of this region, what its needs are, and what the political context is. The organization has also gotten better at presenting its information in more compelling ways to the public. And, of course, they have much more money than they did 15 years ago.
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But there's no end to what the Coastal Conservation League is trying to accomplish. Their work will never be finished, because keeping Charleston beautiful is an ongoing exercise. Communities evolve over time, and they need vocal activist groups to fight the good fight, whether that has to do with preventing the extension of 526 or keeping the cruise industry in check. For the record, the Coastal Conservation League isn't against cruise visitation as a whole. They just think there need to be some standards set for the cruise industry. However, as Beach says, it's not the most important thing in the future of this region. Despite consuming an enormous amount of energy, goodwill, and civic capital, there are simple ways to solve this problem.
The bottom line: Everything has changed between 1997 and today. As Beach explains, public policy toward rural land use, infrastructure, and regulation have all improved dramatically. "The result is that we haven't solved the urban sprawl problem, but there's a framework around it, and literally a frame forming around the region that will embed these urban places ... in a bounded green belt," Beach says. "We're not going to loosen the belt. We're going to have to go on a diet."