Feature Story: Urban Growth Boundary

Updated: Apr 3, 2019

It’s no surprise to anyone that the Charleston area is growing. Coverage of the area’s growth makes news on a regular basis and residents feel the effects of a growing population. The Post & Courier recently outlined some of the region’s influx of residents, noting that, in 2017, Charleston County added 4,868 residents.

But what does all of this mean for our island? As our fellow residents ponder what a growing population holds for Johns Island, an often-overlooked tool called the Urban Growth Boundary plays an important role for managing growth and development on our fragile sea island.

What is an Urban Growth Boundary?

An Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) is a tool that local governments can use to minimize urban sprawl. The UGB is basically a line on a map agreed to by local governments. Development inside the boundary (closer to the urban center of a city) is zoned for urban and suburban uses. Development outside the boundary (less densely populated areas) is zoned for rural uses. This approach protects the rural character of the land outside the boundary for future generations. Even more importantly for the lowcountry, the areas outside the UGB provide a natural protection barrier to resist the impact of hurricanes and flooding. While a UGB can help guide local zoning and land use patterns, it alone cannot legally restrict development. UGB’s must be combined with additional ‘tools’ to effectively conserve natural habitats and protect the rural character of a place like Johns Island.

What does it mean for Johns Island?

On Johns Island, the UGB was originally established in the 1999 Charleston County Comprehensive Plan and later adopted by the City of Charleston. The boundary largely followed geographic features -- such as low elevation and wetlands -- that physically serve as natural barriers to suburban and urban growth since these areas can, at best, only support low-density development. Currently, the UGB restricts suburban and urban development to approximately 20 percent of the island.

Urban Growth Boundary map
Johns Island and the Urban Growth Boundary

Can the location of the Urban Growth Boundary easily be changed?

Unfortunately, the answer is “yes.” Over the past 20 years, the UGB on Johns Island has been moved to accommodate property lines and planned developments across the Island. There is no intergovernmental agreement that sets the location of the UGB in stone. For example, several years ago there was an effort to develop the area around the Angel Oak by including it within the UGB. Fortunately, a grassroots effort was able to stop this effort and the Angel Oak area is now safe from development.

One of the few things stopping intensive development outside the UGB is an agreement among the Charleston Water System, the City and the County that restricts access to sewer beyond the UGB on Johns Island. However, some planned developments have been able to work around this restriction.

branches of the Angel Oak tree

Formalizing the Urban Growth Boundary

Despite the protections put in place over 20 years ago, Johns Island continues to feel pressure to expand the urban footprint. The UGB on Johns Island is essential for protecting the rural character of the island. By restricting moderate- and high-density development to the land that can physically support those uses, it is also a critical tool for reducing the risk of flooding in suburban and urban communities. Legislation and ordinances are needed that bind the City and County to maintain the UGB to its current location and restrict growth outside of it to rural uses. This must include agreed-to process and criteria that restricts changes to the location of UGB

What else is needed?

It is imperative for us as a community to seek additional ‘tools’ to enhance the protections that the UGB provides for our island. Johns Island Community Association, Johns Island Task Force, South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, and Lowcountry Land Trust are all exploring opportunities to enhance the protection of rural lands on the island, including:

  • Conservation Easements: Conservation easements allow private landowners and a land trust or other qualified easement holder to enter into an agreement to limit future development. Conservation easements can serve to reinforce the protections intended by the placement of the UGB. Tax incentives and, occasionally, partial payment for the value of conservation easements through mechanisms like Charleston County’s Greenbelt Program and the South Carolina Conservation Bank can be useful in encouraging landowners to act. The Lowcountry Land Trust has protected over 142,000 acres since 1985, including over 2,000 acres on Johns Island.

  • Wetland Mitigation: There are several infrastructure projects in the works on Johns Island (i.e., Santee Cooper secondary electric line, SCDOT and Charleston County road projects) that will result in negative impacts to freshwater and saltwater wetlands during their installation. Federal legislation mandates that these wetland impacts are offset by protection and restoration of similar wetland types (i.e., mitigation). As part of the mitigation process, we will be requesting that wetland impacts on Johns Island are mitigated on Johns Island.

  • Transfer of Development Rights (TDR): TDR is a tool that local governments can use to protect land from intensive development by shifting development potential from one part of their jurisdiction to another (e.g. from rural to urban). This is accomplished by essentially creating a ‘market’ for development rights which allows developers to build at greater densities in one area by purchasing development rights from another. Once the development rights on a property have been sold, the land cannot be developed and is preserved for open space or agriculture. The City and the County are currently looking into opportunities to establish a TDR market to protect open space across their jurisdictions.

  • Creating zoning districts to protect land for certain uses: The County continues to explore ways of creating overlay districts to promote agricultural businesses and protect rural lands. The recent update to the County’s comprehensive plan suggestions items such as: Expanding agriculture and agricultural uses in districts; allowing niche farming, agri-tourism, and agri-tainment uses such as hay rides and corn mazes; and creating a rural industrial district to provide services and employment opportunities for rural residents.

What can I do?

Talk with your City and/or County councilperson to stress to them that the UGB is not only needed to address uncontrolled growth, but also to mitigate flooding and the effects of hurricanes. Tell them that the UGB needs to be “set in stone.”

Support local organizations like the Lowcountry Land Trust, the Coastal Conservation League and the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation. These organizations are striving to protect the rural character of places like Johns Island.

Help make owning property on Johns Island (and Wadmalaw) profitable for our farmers. Support your nearest farmer’s market and/or enroll in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program hosted by your local farmer.

Stay in-the-know of City and County zoning change requests and, even more importantly, show up at the hearings. A large and respectful crowd helps tremendously.

If you live outside the UGB or near it, be respectful of your rural neighbors. They hunt, they perform prescribed burns on their timberlands to prevent larger fires, and they have chickens that crow at four in the morning. That’s a small price to pay for the beauty of the island we call home.

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