Comprehensive Plan group, like anything growth-related in Mount Pleasant, becomes a political issue

September 14, 2017

MOUNT PLEASANT — The nearly three dozen East Cooper residents chosen for an advisory group, to help craft the town’s 10-year vision, have become a political issue, with the Save Shem Creek group claiming anti-growth volunteers were excluded.

“It’s clear to everyone that the process was slanted against those in favor of managed growth,” said Old Village resident James Scott, an officer of Save Shem Creek Corp., in a Facebook comment to Mayor Linda Page after the committee was picked.

When Town Council meets at 6 p.m. Thursday, one item on the agenda calls for them to consider adding additional members to the Comprehensive Plan committee, and to limit the participation of committee members who don’t reside in the town. The committee includes some residents of unincorporated East Cooper communities, areas the town considers in long-term planning.

Town officials say the 34 people chosen for the Comprehensive Plan process in August were selected by the Planning Commission from a list that did not include names or addresses, so Planning Commission members wouldn’t know who they were picking. Demographic information was included so that different ages, genders, races and all areas of the town would be represented, and brief statements from the applicants were also included.

“We tried to ensure that we got a representative group,” said Assistant Town Administrator Christiane Farrell.

The result was a planning group split 50-50 among men and women, from young adults to retirees, more racially diverse than the town as a whole.

The Comprehensive Plan — South Carolina towns and counties must have them, and update them — will be a guiding document for growth and development for a decade to come.

“This isn’t just land use,” Farrell said of the planning effort. “It gets into population and housing needs, natural resources, and all the things the state requires.”

Development is a big concern in the town, one of the nation’s fastest-growing places, and it’s also Mount Pleasant’s hottest political issue, with the mayor’s office and half the seats on Town Council up for election in November.

“Looking at the list, I see developers, affordable housing advocates, the person who ran the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce’s ‘Together Mount Pleasant’ FB page in the 2015 council election, etc,” Councilman and mayoral candidate Will Haynie said in the back-and-forth on Facebook.

Page is facing Haynie, a Save Shem Creek ally, in her bid for re-election as mayor. In Facebook comments, Page said the Comprehensive Plan committee selection was designed to be non-political.

“Its purpose was to be non-political and reflect the 80,000-plus that live here,” she said.

Critics have offered no evidence the process was tilted toward a particular viewpoint, but imply that it must have been because of the outcome. Just one of Save Shem Creek’s 14 officers volunteered for the committee and he, Brett Bennet, did not make the final list.

“I’m not upset that Brett wasn’t chosen,” said former Councilman Jimmy Bagwell, chairman of the Save Shem Creek group. “I’m just a little bit concerned about how the process was done, and whether it was a completely blind process.”

“Out of the 34 people selected, I’m not sure any had expressed concern about the out-of-control growth in Mount Pleasant,” Bagwell said.

He singled out Roy Neal, acting chairman of the Planning Commission during the special meeting where the committee members were selected, for criticism.

“You name it, he’s been a proponent of out-of-control growth in the town,” Bagwell said.

Neal said he was baffled by the criticism and has known Bagwell for decades.

“I’m one vote,” said Neal. “I don’t know why he would be attacking me.”

“It was a public meeting, everything was done right there,” he said. “Our goal was to make the committee match the population, in age, ethnicity, and male-female, and by location.”

Those chosen for the committee do include some familiar faces, including residents known for speaking at most Town Council meetings, former Councilwoman Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, and prominent members of both real estate development companies and nonprofit land conservation groups.

The list includes executives with the Coastal Conservation League, the East Cooper Land Trust, companies involved in real estate development and construction, and HOA management. Three of the 34 volunteers previously served on the town’s Affordable Housing Task Force formed by Town Council.

The planning group’s first Town Hall meeting is scheduled Sept. 19 and an open house will be held in October. The town has created a special section on its website, tompsc.com, focusing on the Comprehensive Plan process.

The website is a guide to the complex process, which will wrap up next summer, and it says: “This is your best chance to have a direct say in what Mount Pleasant looks like in the future.”