01 Feb The phone is ringing and the inbox is full
I’ve received many emails and telephone calls from residents of Ladys Island angry about tree cutting, traffic congestion and safety, environmental challenges and the physical beauty of the area in regards to the new Walmart. However, there’s a constituency very much looking forward to the new shopping opportunity closer to home and at prices our demographics can afford. They range from the senior citizens I met with earlier this week on Saint Helena Island to some who live on the outer edges of northern Lady island and newer neighborhoods in between. Walmart uses serious research to find their market and clearly would not he be spending millions on dirt before they even start building.
It is neither the role of government is to pick winners and losers nor to favor one land owner or company over the other. Our mission is to maintain the public safety and to create civic and comprehensive plans to foster a community that is environmentally, culturally and fiscally sustainable. The rules of engagement between government and the people are not made on a case by case basis; rather they are a collection of ordinances developed by differing councils and governing bodies over a period of time.
The role of Mayor sometimes requires setting aside personal likes and dislikes, ensuring abidance of the laws and a format that ensures transparency and public input. It is the role of the public to keep an eye on us, to look and learn at what may be happening and to use every opportunity to express views and concerns.
I know some, like myself and some of my colleagues, are surprised that so many tress will soon be coming down at the site known as Airport Junction and that for months ahead trucks filled with dirt will be making their way along Highway 21 from St Helena Island to fill and raise the low level terrain to ready it for construction of the controversial retailer.
For the benefit of those who have not followed the story, let me indulge in an abbreviated explanation of how we got here and what, if anything, the city and residents can do.
Before Airport Junction was part of the city, the property owners of Airport Junction, Distant Island and Cane Island negotiated a PUD (Planned Unit Development) governed by a development agreement between Beaufort County and the owners of these tracts of land. It was a little unusual, at least for northern Beaufort County, to have several proposed developments under one agreement or contract which is what a development agreement is.
Several years later, the properties’ owners, cognizant that the balance of power between Northern Beaufort County and Southern Beaufort County would be changing with the “power” balance shifting south, petitioned to annex into the city because they wanted more “localized control.” The then City Council accepted the annexation requests. The real estate market at the time was “hot” and there was hope that through annexing the city could grow. Along with the annexation came the existing development agreements and PUDs.
As the real estate market cooled, the only development that moved forward was a number of lots on beautiful Distant Island while there was little interest in Airport Junction or Upper and Lower Cane Islands. I can only assume that no one thought much about the commitments of the development agreements until several years ago. As the economy started to turn, the site selection researchers for Walmart determined that, on the basis of past and future growth on Ladys and St Helena Islands, the Airport Junction site was the best place to develop large a Walmart store.
The developers approached the City for permits and, based on the City Council’s understanding of the development agreement, objected to the proposed super store on that site. It did not take long for Walmart to withdraw their offer on the land as I assume they did not want local controversy. When they withdrew, the property owner — exercising his rights under the development agreement — sued the city alleging that the city misinterpreted the development agreement which cost him the sale of his land. A law suit ensued but fortunately the parties remained civil. The property owner did not sue for damages, only for the rights he believed he had. According to the development agreement, the alternative dispute resolution was arbitration rather than running through the courts. (Standard for such agreements.)
Following a period of back and forth volleys between the two sides attempting to find an acceptable compromise, the case went into arbitration in front of a three judge panel. After spending a sizable amount by both sides, all three judges found on the side of the property owner. The issue was whether or not a conceptual drawing of what a development might look like or the exact words of the development agreement determined how the site could be developed. The city held that the drawings, showing something more like an office park with smaller buildings, ruled what could be constructed on the site. The property owner held that the gross footage to be built was the limiting factor and not the size or placement of each building. The judges agreed with the property owner and ruled that a big building was perfectly within the parameters of the agreement.
If there is good news it is that the property owner was not hostile, did not sue for the loss of his contract from Walmart and expressed a willingness to try to address some of the city’s concerns. Over a period of months, city planners and the property owner worked with each other on set backs, building placement and some other issues. The size of the building was not an issue on which significant agreement could be achieved. However it was agreed that the a large building would sit away from the road and be shielded by smaller buildings near highway 21. The property owner also agreed to give up some of the density on his other properties though that did not directly impact Airport Junction.
There was a settlement and most who opposed Walmart were at the time pleased that it would not come. But when the economy started on the uptick Walmart returned. Walmart met city and county standards except those requiring preserving buffers as this provision was trumped by federal law requiring minimum building elevations. One might have tried to force filling around the trees, but six feet of dirt would have killed them anyway so that was not the answer. And now comes the massive removal of trees. Once the fill is completed and a bulkhead is constructed the developer is required to install a fifteen foot wide buffer in front of out buildings that may be built upon in the future.
This is to say our hands are tied.
There are two lessons I have learned: The first is that PUDs and development agreements are likely zoning instruments of the past and unless there are unusual circumstances, the City is not likely to accept them. The second is that just west of Airport Junction a party is exploring another big box at the site of the former Publix. Staff is reviewing proposals and I would urge you to follow the process and take every opportunity to make your views heard. Under our form of government, where Council makes policy and staff implements, the City Council cannot be directly involved in these regulatory actions. But you can be engaged and we will certainly be looking to ensure all ordinances are enforced.
This image demonstrates that large specimen trees can be saved if the parties work together. 303 Associates and the city staff worked together to save the grand oak next to Starbucks.