Last week, in an increasingly familiar scene, Mt. Pleasant Town Council changed its zoning regulations in favor of a new development, a 593-unit housing community on less than 200 acres located near the Six Mile Community just off Rifle Range Road. Council also approved an impact study for the new development called Oyster Point and passed a first reading of the ordinance approving the construction. While this could be good news in a struggling economy, the community's position is uniformly against the development.
Citing concerns such as increased traffic on already congested roadways and the loss of a valuable piece of undeveloped land in an increasingly overdeveloped town, area residents overwhelmingly spoke out at Town Council against the plan. Council apparently ignored their words. They not only approved the project, they also passed a zoning change to allow the developer to build even more homes on the property by an 8-1 vote.
Naturally, Town Council had a number of reasons to approve the development that outweighed the concerns of the people who already live in the area. One reason they mentioned was that if they did not approve the development and annex the property, then Charleston County would do it and reap the benefits of the tax revenue. Of course, there was no other possibility but to accept this development as the property owner — naturally — has the right to do whatever they want with their land. This is, of course, where Town Council has it wrong.
The idea that property owners have a right to do whatever they want with their own property is a comfortable myth that is frequently used to shield monolithic development companies. It is a myth because as a rule the ordinary property owner does not have any such freedom. Property owners are constrained by zoning restrictions, livability ordinances, and — ironically in neighborhoods such as Oyster Point — homeowners association regulations.
The pro-development crowd will no doubt cry foul, claiming that developers suffer because of the demands placed on them by Town Council. Zoning laws can determine the density of a project and, in some of the more progressive parts of the country, even designate that a percentage of the homes be affordable housing, a requirement Mt. Pleasant does not seem to have.
Zoning restrictions, while in existence in Mt. Pleasant, are completely flexible whenever the town sees an opportunity to increase its tax base. And this sort of flexibility makes it even easier to say that the "property owner" has the right to develop a property. However, a development company is not a property owner in the same sense as someone who owns a home. What we have here is the same legal creativity that creates "persons" out of "corporations" and embodies them with all of the rights and privileges of a person while often allowing them to skirt the responsibilities of citizenship, like taxes and responsibility to the community.
The problem with treating development companies as "property owners" with expanded rights to do "whatever they want" with their property is that they are not actually members of the community. A community has recourse against a neighbor who fails to maintain a property in a manner consistent with the community's standards or one who undertakes an addition or change to the property that would adversely affect the neighbors. Of course, in many neighborhoods these are fears tied to falling property values. For residents living next to a proposed large-scale housing development, the problems are increased traffic, property values, and taxes and the loss of natural beauty.
Growth is at least marginally better than decline in almost everyone's book. However, growth should not be an end itself but rather a means to a better community. Smart growth is something that Mt. Pleasant seems to have struggled with over the years, expressed most obviously in how they only recently began a road project to handle a population explosion that started over a decade ago.
By encouraging new growth in areas without the infrastructure to support it, Mt. Pleasant is asking for trouble, and by routinely altering zoning laws to accommodate out-of-state developers, particularly over the objection of actual residents, they are not supporting the rights of property owners. The Mt. Pleasant Town Council is denying the rights of a community to decide as a group what kind of town they want to live in.
Mat Catastrophe is a multimedia geek who is currently co-authoring a book called Arguing on the Internet. He is also the owner of several satirical "new media" companies.