Trashing the Ashley

Huge Development Could Harm the South Carolina Corridor.

Thousands of dwellings are proposed for the Watson Hill tract, not far from this stretch of Ashley River Road near Charleston, S.C.

Credit: Courtesy of Drayton Hall

Along Ashley River Road in South Carolina's low country, the giant limbs of old live oaks bend over the road as if to protect it, offering welcome shade from the southern sun. The massive trees evince the historic value of the Ashley River region, home to some of the nation's oldest and best-preserved plantation houses. Yet the area's bucolic elegance is threatened by a massive new development planned along the scenic two-lane road.

The proposal—which calls for 4,500 dwellings on a 6,600-acre tract known as Watson Hill—is at the center of a multijurisdictional battle over zoning, land use, and the urban-rural divide. Watson Hill and the Ashley River corridor are in Dorchester County, a growing area about 12 miles northwest of downtown Charleston and just west of the city of North Charleston. Critics say the proposal, which includes a hotel and golf course, would destroy the district's rural character and bring more people and traffic to the county than its infrastructure could support.

At the heart of the issue are the plantations that line the river road. Among them are Drayton Hall, a National Trust Historic Site completed in 1742 and one of the nation's oldest Georgian-Palladian structures; Magnolia Plantation, whose main house dates from 1760; and Middleton Place, an early-18th-century estate famous for its gardens. Ashley River Road itself is a National Scenic Byway, one of some 100 roads similarly designated by the Federal Highway Administration. "None of these [plantations] would disappear as a result of the Watson Hill project, of course," wrote Trust President Richard Moe in a May editorial in the Charleston Post and Courier, "but the context that helps give them meaning would be irreparably harmed by the addition of so much development."

Dorchester County leaders have called on S.C. Property Holdings, which bought Watson Hill in 2004, to downsize its proposal. At first, according to Dorchester County Council Chair Christopher Murphy, the developer seemed willing to negotiate. Talks ceased this spring, however, when North Charleston announced plans to annex the Watson Hill tract to allow the development to proceed. In a countermove, the town of Summerville forged its own annexation proposal, and the two entities have now gone to court. In May, Charleston itself boosted Summerville's effort by extending its northwest boundary to the Dorchester County line.

"If the North Charleston annexation fails, what I hope to accomplish is to balance the rights of the developer against those of adjacent landowners," Murphy says. "I'm trying to find common ground, but common ground is not 4,500 units." Murphy adds that, before the annexation fight, the council and the developer had begun work on a revised 1,200-unit plan—with 500 units hinging on the developer's ability to build access to a nearby highway and thereby reduce impacts on Ashley River Road. The county also is debating new zoning to limit the number of houses per acre.

In the meantime, a coalition of preservationists, environmentalists, and local landowners has opposed the North Charleston annexation and encouraged the developer to downsize the project. "Imagine if you were standing at Mount Vernon and saw condos across the Potomac River, or if you had to drive through subdivisions to get to Monticello," says George McDaniel, director of Drayton Hall. "Here on the Ashley River, you have a small but valuable remnant of an 18th-century landscape. Watson Hill threatens to completely overwhelm that context."

Richard Lam, a principal in S.C. Property Holdings, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In February, however, Lam told the Summerville Journal Scene that he hoped the project would "bring something of value to the community that will not only be compatible with the area, but will enhance the natural environment."

Dana Beach, executive director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, predicts that community opposition and a drawn-out court battle will eventually work against the developer. Regardless, the low country will continue to face development pressure. "We have no regional planning," Beach says. "It's been a constant battle to focus attention on the larger issue of protecting the Ashley River historic district."  

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