Attorneys defend Mount Pleasant office project, say changing rules hurting town

By Andy Owens
aowens@scbiznews.com
Published June 12, 2014

Two attorneys for the developer of an office building project on Shem Creek told Mount Pleasant Town Council on Tuesday that allowing changes to development rules after a contract was signed last year could amount to an illegal taking of their client’s property.

Andy Gowder, a partner with Pratt-Thomas Walker law firm, said earlier changes to setbacks and proposed changes to height allowances on Coleman Boulevard would not only harm Shem Creek Development Group’s plans for a $13 million office building but would also discourage other businesses from investing in Mount Pleasant.

In October, the town and Shem Creek Development Group agreed on a public-private partnership to help alleviate parking issues that frequently spill into nearby neighborhoods on nights and weekends. The town agreed to pay the developer $185,000 from accommodations taxes each year for 15 years, and then $1 a year for the ensuing 15 years, to build a two-story parking garage beneath its office building.

The town would have access to one floor of parking during weekdays and both floors during weekends.

“Several months ago, however, the landscape began to shift under my client’s feet, and the town began changing some of the regulatory characteristics upon which my client based his expectations,” Gowder said. “This council changed setbacks, which inadvertently, I think, changed the size and design of the building planned by my client on this location.”

Gowder said that when that problem became clear, the town didn’t act to correct the “unintended harm to this project.”

Four items on the Town Council agenda Tuesday seemed to be focused on the office building project at the corner of Mill Street and Coleman Boulevard.

Two of the agenda items were about reducing height allowances in specific areas of the town. One of those items passed, one which directs the town staff to prepare an ordinance that reduces the 75-foot height allowance for the Coleman Boulevard Urban Corridor Overlay District.

The other item about height restrictions failed, and items about a parking license agreement and a Mill Street zoning amendment were tabled.

Gray Taylor, a shareholder with Buist, Byars & Taylor and the owner of the property on Coleman Boulevard, said the town’s actions were clearly directed at Shem Creek Development Group.

“The actions proposed by new business items one through four, even though 1 is tabled, are at best ill-conceived, illegal spot zoning actions designed to kill a specific project, which would otherwise be built by rights,” Taylor said.

He urged Town Council to follow planning regulations and years of input received by the Coleman Boulevard Revitalization Advisory Board (.pdf) instead of reacting to “emotional” appeals from those opposed to growth.

“Please stand up for the good of the town. Do not succumb to the demands of a few. Hear the voices of the entire community,” Taylor said.

Earlier in the meeting, the frustration of several Town Council members became apparent. Councilman Elton Carrier said he was aggravated at having to readdress things that had been decided during a 10-year planning process and was concerned that uninformed changes could be made that would undermine the value of the plan.

“We spent an awful lot of time on this, and we delved into everything,” Carrier said. “We had urban planners. We had landscape architects. We had people who knew what they were doing and knew what we wanted, and then we had a council that we sold it to. And they bought in 100%. I listen to all this from people that never went through this process. And those in the public didn’t go through the process.”

Carrier said the town held more than 30 charrettes on topics that are now coming before council, such as housing density and height restrictions.

“Now I’m sorry folks, but this thing has been vetted a lot, and I’m telling you what, if you didn’t participate, shame on you,” Carrier said. “And for what we’re doing here tonight — I’m not hung up on 75-foot. I think that is negotiable, but the rest of it? It better hopefully stand because that’s what we were about, and Mount Pleasant needs it. We’ve got to have it.”

Town Councilman Gary Santos, who has been the most vocal opponent of development on Shem Creek, and the proposed height of the office building in particular, has said the character and feel of the creek and the town of Mount Pleasant is at stake.

“It’s going to dominate the creek. The ambience of the creek is going to be destroyed,” Santos said in an earlier interview. “The only thing you’ll see is this building. There are other places around there they could build this parking garage.”

Mayor Linda Page, who has voiced support for the office building and parking garage, said earlier in the meeting that she was concerned about continually changing regulations.

“Do I like 75 feet when I look at 62 feet at The Boulevard? No, I don’t. But I don’t carry the single vote here, and I very much appreciate all the hardworking people who pay their property taxes on Coleman Boulevard like Chris at Coleman Dry Cleaners who wants to one day retire, and we keep changing the rules,” Page said.

Robert “Tex” Small Jr., the head of Shem Creek Development Group, accused Town Council of allowing Santos to hijack the council by adding things to the agenda that required him to repeatedly come back to defend his project.

“If you look at it, our property, our project, our proposal, our work with the town has become the poster child for what you’re talking about, Mayor. Changing it every single month. Every month for the last three months, we’ve had one councilman over there that brings up another proposal to council because he can get it on the agenda,” Small said.

Page said that prosperity is good and people are leaving towns like Hemingway, Dillon and Marion where unemployment is high and options for small businesses are sparse.

“I’m okay with taking it back to the commission. I’m okay with calling a stakeholders meeting,” Page said. “I’m very open to suggestion, but what I don’t want is one side against the other forever. It needs to be fair, and it needs to be decided, and we need to decide what we’re going to do.”

Reach Andy Owens at 843-849-3142.

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