Charleston is being threatened by the universal force of water: storms, rains, flooding, and rising seas. We live in the Lowcountry, formed as the sea receded during the last Ice Age. We live on a remnant shoreline just a few feet above today’s sea level. Water flows downhill to the sea. Its path twists and turns, following the subtle path of least resistance above and below ground. It carves streams into the softer soils along the path of least resistance like the roots of trees through soil that also helps water seep into the land.
I moved to Charleston in 1981 to teach biology at the College of Charleston. As an ecology teacher, I am fascinated by the interaction between the land and sea. I helped design the S.C. Aquarium, worked with Mayor Joe Riley on the Johns Island Growth Management Committee, Green Committee and helped write the City of Charleston Green Plan. I was awarded the City of Charleston Stewardship Award 2010. I built my home on Johns Island in 2003. I moved away in 2009, then back again in 2016 only to be flabbergasted by the changes I saw on the island.
Very early on I witnessed the high cost of bad development. I grew up in Levittown, Long Island, N.Y., in the first large housing development built after World War II for returning soldiers, immigrants and refugees. Levitt and Sons built 17,500 houses on once fertile farmland that was infected with potato parasites. The sprawl contaminated the groundwater, increased runoff and generated massive traffic jams just like we have in Charleston these days.
Modern housing developments harden the soil surfaces with paving, high clay content fill dirt, sod and houses on deforested land that increases the sheet flow of water. Each new development pushes its surface water somewhere else, into a stream, storm drain or onto neighboring properties. An acre of forest will shed 750 gallons from one inch of rainfall while a parking lot will shed 27,000 gallons, an increase of 3,500 percent. Modern developments are somewhere in between, but much closer to parking lots than forests.
So why would the city of Charleston’s planning department so gleefully promote extensive building projects in low-lying areas of Johns and James Islands, West Ashley, Bees Ferry, downtown and even Rantowles in the watershed of the Stono River? Why would the “progress of development” allow big-box developers to plunder our local communities that have been here for centuries? Why does “progress” always cost local residents and profit some developer from off? Why does the planning department turn a blind eye to the Johns Island Community Plan and the city’s Century V Plan, which recognize the fragility our environment, the power of water and the vulnerability of the Lowcountry and hazards of building in low-lying locations? Why would Mayor John Tecklenburg permit it?
They say a rising tide lifts all boats but in this case rising developments are flooding all homes. Water has become the defining issue for 21st century Charleston, everywhere. It is time we had a government that recognizes its duty to first and foremost protect its people before it aids and abets profiteering developers.
Our mayor has declared that flooding is Charleston’s No. 1 issue. But his actions speak otherwise. Charleston demands leadership from the Plantation District, with its antebellum mansions and vast land holdings threatened by North Charleston annexation, to Johns Islands, where the descendants of slaves who built those plantations contributed to the development of the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King. All of Charleston is historically rich. All of Charleston is threatened by water and it is time for Mayor Tecklenburg, his staff, and City Council to belly up to the bar and show us some real leadership.
Charleston needs to take a break. Before the next bulldozer fires up, before the next retention pond is dug there should be a plan in place to keep our sense of place intact. We need a moratorium to give us all the time to figure this out before we blindly put property, families and heritage at risk. Not one more tree should be cut down before we build something we all have to pay for later, before we make the same mistake twice, or before someone gets needlessly killed.
Phillip Dustan, Ph.D., a Johns Island resident, is currently on sabbatical from the College of Charleston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.