Mt. Pleasant is trying to find its identity. In recent years, the town has held a position as one of the fastest-growing communities in the country — adding almost 10,000 new residents between 2008 and 2013. At the same time, many longtime townspeople say that the area's reputation as a quaint, seaside community has given way to increased development that is exhausting the town's infrastructure. The upcoming election on November 3 may determine which direction Mt. Pleasant takes.
Twelve candidates are currently running for four seats on Mt. Pleasant Town Council. The field includes auctioneer Julio Avendano, motivational speaker Christian Bramson, Planning Commission member Bob Brimmer, businessman Ben Bryson, former councilman Joe Bustos, former councilman Nick Collins, newspaper columnist Will Haynie, businessman Rodley Millet, and Save Shem Creek officer Jim Owens.
They are joined by three incumbents: Ken Glasson, Chris Nickels, and Chris O'Neal. As members of council, these three have played a major role in managing the town's growth in recent years and developing plans for the area's future expansion.
"Mt. Pleasant's town leaders must pursue and promote development opportunities," says Nickels. "However, the approval process for real estate development should be deliberative. The answer, therefore, is to create a development review process that's transparent, predictable, and fair while addressing infrastructure concerns."
Key among those infrastructure concerns is the town's growing problem with traffic. According to the town's Long Range Transportation Plan, one-third of the area's major roadways will be significantly congested by 2030. To make matters worse, about half of the town's employed residents commute to neighboring cities for work each day. O'Neal believes a strong push to incentivize business and economic development within Mt. Pleasant is necessary to keep the town thriving.
"We have a well-educated citizenry, but unfortunately many of them have to commute to Charleston and North Charleston to work," says O'Neal. "Attracting and growing high-wage jobs in Mt. Pleasant are the key to our future. The town does continue to grow on the residential side, but it will need those employers to locate here to keep good budget favorability for the town and to ease traffic."
According to Millet, Mt. Pleasant lags behind in new business development and must make an effort to catch up to the economic growth that is occurring in the region.
"We should not plan for a future that places undue stress on residents to cover the cost of services," says Millet. "That is why I propose the creation of an Economic Development Corporation, a 501 (c)(3), with a mission to stimulate a diversified and strong economic climate in Mt. Pleasant, through recruitment of new business opportunities and assistance in the retention and expansion of existing businesses."
Millet also proposes the implementation of the town's Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan and the creation of an Alternative Transportation Taskforce to examine the feasibility of creating a public-private partnership for the development of a public transportation system within Mt. Pleasant.
Haynie says council must make infrastructure a priority, and the best way to ease the area's traffic troubles is to push for lower densities. According to Haynie, town officials made the mistake of maintaining bonus density incentives for developers, which were originally put in place to spawn development during the recession.
"Our schools, roads, and facilities are at capacity. My view is that the single-family homeowner has as much right to their quality of life as developers have to claim their development right," says Haynie. "The town recently raised property taxes and business fees as a result of growth. My question is: Why make the citizens absorb this cost? Development should pay for itself."
Avendano agrees that infrastructure should be a priority, but he is a bit more supportive of the current administration's management of the town's growth.
"I would take traffic in the Lowcountry over traffic in New York or New Jersey any day, and this is one of the reasons why we are experiencing this small hiccup," says Avendano. "The infrastructure in Mt. Pleasant has to be on top of the agenda and a catchup of sorts has to be realized right away because if left alone it will continue to grow out of control."
Dealing with growth and traffic will require working with neighboring municipalities to ensure success, according to Collins, who says developers need to be held more accountable.
"The traffic is a growing concern and needs to be addressed throughout the entire Charleston tri-county area," says Collins. "One way to solve our traffic problems is to hold the developers responsible for the traffic they create with new developments that are being built."
Glasson has spent the past nine years on Town Council dealing with these issues. In a Moultrie News article, he promised to finalize the town's Growth Management Plan, which outlines three main goals: curbing the number of residential units allowed in new developments to manage density, adjusting development costs to pay for public infrastructure, and expanding recreational areas.
On his campaign website, Bryson says that expanding recreation opportunities in the town is one of his priorities and he plans to aggressively pursue federal and state funding for enhancement projects.
Other candidates have shown strong support for the Growth Management Plan drafted this year by town officials.
"The key to having responsible growth is to pass the Growth Management Plan, reduce bonus densities, and stop making special exceptions to the Comprehensive Plan. The Growth Management Plan can be adjusted as infrastructure and congestion improve," says Owens. "We have to preserve the character of our town while protecting the quality of life for our citizens."
The town's Growth Management Plan has received its share of criticism since being introduced. The Urban Land Institute conducted a study of the proposed plan and reported several key concerns. ULI recommends that the town focus on development within high-density nodes and correct the problems that have occurred with bonus density allowances rather than eliminate opportunities. These suggestions haven't swayed many running for Town Council who say that growth needs to be controlled and low-density development is the way to do it.
"Very simply put, I believe we need to support the Growth Management Plan and hold zoning that is already slated for economic development," says Bramson. "Slow down on residential rooftops and bring on jobs, jobs, jobs that can help bring in taxes to support our infrastructure and great town."
Bramson, like the other candidates, says the immediate expansion of Highway 41 is vital to the town.
As for the Planning Commission's Brimmer, he believes that "addressing traffic concerns requires a two-pronged approach: addressing current deficiencies and preventing future problems. To address current problem areas such as Highway 41, additional efforts are needed to secure more immediate funding for widening."
He adds, "Identifying and finding ways to leverage state, federal, or local funds must be a priority of our council so that important evacuation and transportation corridors remain functional and safe."
A CPA, Bustos sees how money plays a big role in the shaping of the town.
"Making roads a priority would help. The town is spending $26 million on a new town hall. Perhaps the priorities should be changed," says Bustos, whose main concern is the effect that continued traffic problems could have on the municipality. "Unfortunately, growth has not been managed in the past four or five years," he says. "The establishment of a viable growth management plan will be vital to maintaining Mt. Pleasant's popularity, quality of life, and growth."