James Islanders fight Habitat for Humanity project 

He-says-she-says drama fuels disputes

Some James Island residents are anxious about a new Habitat for Humanity housing project that they say could lower property values and hurt the environment.

Adam Chandler

Some James Island residents are anxious about a new Habitat for Humanity housing project that they say could lower property values and hurt the environment.

It is no secret that development is a sore subject for some James Islanders. Tension has swelled over the years between preservation-minded residents and outside authorities pushing to outfit the area with shopping centers and subdivisions. So when the City of Charleston recently approved a housing development project on James Island by Sea Island Habitat for Humanity, anti-development residents renewed their efforts.

Sea Island Habitat, a Johns Island-based branch of the national Christian nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity, builds affordable houses and offers homeowners zero-interest mortgages and depends on volunteer construction and donated materials. Despite Sea Island Habitat's initiatives in providing affordable housing, a group of residents in neighborhoods surrounding the construction site — including Old Orchard, Teal Acres, and Quail Run — are fighting development in their backyards.

Old Orchard resident and former Town of James Island Council member Robin Welch speculates that Habitat's widely known and affordable subdivisions attract lower-income families and in turn lower property values and trigger increased crime. "We're kind of teetering on the edge from middle class to lower class as it is," she says. "I'm not against Habitat. Habitat communities do have to be built somewhere, but it's really going to reduce the quality of our neighborhood."

Habitat for Humanity's national guidelines promote affordable financing and require potential owners' income to remain below 80 percent of an area's median income. However, Sea Island Habitat Executive Director Greg Thomas says salary levels are hardly valid indicators of criminal behavior. "How much you make doesn't say that you're bringing crime, or no crime, into the neighborhood. It's not necessarily something that's a cause and effect," he says. "I get really insulted when people say our families will bring the community down. I'm surprised that in the year 2011 people would say those things."

Thomas notes Sea Island Habitat's property appraisals in the past four years range from roughly $160,000 to $180,000, amounts similar to an estimated $175,000 rate for Old Orchard households and a $173,000 rate for Quail Run households, according to figures provided by the Charleston County Assessor's Office. "We don't build tenements. We don't give houses away. We build neighborhoods," Thomas says. "I'm very much in favor of providing people who can't buy their own home a place to live, and Habitat makes that possible. We're in business to allow that group to achieve the American dream."

After roughly nine months of back-and-forth disputes and approximately 43 e-mails exchanged between Sea Island Habitat officials and concerned residents, the city's Planning Commission gave the green light to the project on Oct. 19. With construction slated to begin in January, the development site encompasses approximately 6.3 acres of woodlands and wetlands near the intersections of Dills Bluff and Fort Johnson roads and will boast 22 households of 1,100 square feet, a small-scale retention pond, and a community garden occupying one-tenth of an acre. There will also be an additional roadway branching off Fort Johnson Road and connecting with Sea Aire Drive in order to accommodate increased traffic.

Over the past year, nearby residents pleaded with Sea Island Habitat to thin the project's scope to 18 households, halt plans for an additional roadway, and shrink the retention pond's size. Welch said the pleas were an effort to protect neighborhood children from increased traffic. "There's a lot of animosity by Habitat toward our neighborhood. Their interest is in building, and our interest is in protecting our neighborhood," Welch says. "It's frustrating. It's really going to change the character of our neighborhood."

Welch claims Sea Island Habitat failed to uphold its end of the bargain in disclosing final development plans before seeking city approval. "We went to [Sea Island Habitat] in good faith and asked them to work with us. Instead, they tricked us," she says. "They gave us the impression, 'Don't cause a ruckus and we'll work with you,' but they didn't. I should've went out and told people right away about what's going on."

On Oct. 14, Welch met with Thomas and Sea Island Habitat Land Development Manager Tamara Avery, urging the officials to delay submitting plans for city approval until November. In the meantime, she hope to coordinate an informational community meeting regarding development plans. The request remained unanswered, Welch claims. "We're kind of powerless. We're at the mercy of Habitat," she says. "We're just trying to be good neighbors. We never said, 'No, you can't build here.'"

But Avery points out that Sea Island Habitat officials met with Welch and other concerned residents four times over the past year in an effort to reach common ground. However, she confirms that Sea Island Habitat did not reveal final building plans before meeting with the city commission due to time constraints. "We don't have to meet with them," she says. "We have to do what's best for our company."

Resident Jamie Sutton, who lives two streets from the development site, says Sea Island Habitat officials were tight-lipped about development schemes, however. "HFH has not taken any time to be transparent or notify any homeowners in the surrounding neighborhoods, so most residents don't know about what's being proposed," Sutton writes in an e-mail to City Paper. "Being secretive is really not a great way to start off any development in terms of public relations. I personally feel like they are trying to squeak this in through the back door."

In an effort to address the concerns of residents, Habitat's Thomas says the organization whittled down development plans. The number of houses was scaled back from 25 to 22. Community garden space was reduced to one-tenth of an acre from the requested one-and-three-fourths acres. Sea Island Habitat also restricted development to the site's northeastern corner in order to preserve green space and divert wildlife from the roadway. "We did exactly what they asked. We made it smaller and saved the trees," Thomas says, noting zoning laws permit 29 total households. "There's always two sides to every story."

Some residents believe they are having trouble getting their concerns heard because of crisscrossing county and city lines. The majority of households in neighborhoods surrounding the city-owned development site are on county land outside of city limits, according to Welch, whose house falls in county territory. "We have no one to help us," she says. "The City of Charleston doesn't really care what people in the county think, so when we try to ask for help, it falls on deaf ears."

City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, representing James Island in District 9, says the island is "always the different one" when reacting to city-approved projects. "I'm trying to walk a balance beam," Wilson says. "I hear them. A good idea can come from anyone. It doesn't matter if they're in the city or the county. I want to give them a voice, but at the same time, how much do you allow residents to dictate everything that's going on?"

Wilson says there's "no good reason" to oppose the six-acre development due to the project's compliance with zoning laws. "If nothing was ever built on James Island, that would be fine with me. I don't like development, but we're not going to stop it," she says. "It's my job to pick and choose the fights. I can't oppose every house that's built on the island."

Quail Run resident and realtor Lyndy Palmer says the city's grip around the island is diminishing the area's quaint character. "I do believe this is yet another example of Joe Riley's attempt to corrupt James Island," she says. "He seems to have a vendetta for James Island for some reason. He is over-populating our island with developments of the highest density possible, and I believe that he is definitely taking advantage of the dissolution of James Island as a town, because he knows James Island's zoning density is much lower than the city's."

Toni Reale, a small business owner and creator of Old Orchard's neighborhood website, believes the residual effects of the development will create a commercialized, dime-a-dozen community. "James Islanders are really tied to their natural environment," she says. "The more development that moves in to our town, with all the strip malls and fast-food restaurants, the more our natural environment gets chipped away.

"Overall," she adds, "I feel like we always get the short end of the stick."

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