Water and Wetlands

Long Savannah

The developer’s proposal would not only exacerbate West Ashley’s notorious flooding, it would destroy more than 200 acres of valuable wetland habitat and create a mixed-use development unaffordable for the majority of the present community.
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Case Background

During this day and time, we know better than to fill and build in wetlands, particularly in a floodplain. These activities have led to repeated flooding of people's homes, especially in the notoriously waterlogged Church Creek basin in Charleston's West Ashley.

And yet, on May 21, 2020, right on the heels of horrific flooding events in Charleston County caused by Tropical Storm Bertha, DHEC staff issued 401 Water Quality and Coastal Zone Consistency Certifications for the 3,172.6-acre Long Savannah project—one of the largest proposed developments in Charleston's history—and one that stands to threaten the health and livability of the West Ashley community as it would allow the permanent destruction of more than 200 acres of wetlands.

West Ashley's Crosstowne Christian Church after Hurricane Matthew. A study commissioned by the Church found that stormwater runoff caused by filling wetlands and overdevelopment in the Church Creek Basin will likely increase the frequency and depth of flooding events. Photo credit: Pastor Paul Rienzo

On July 30, 2020, after the DHEC Board declined to review its staff's certifications, we filed a Request for a Contested Case Hearing with the South Carolina Administrative Law Court, asking the court to reverse the certifications. We took this action on behalf of the Sierra Club and South Carolina Wildlife Federation.

Why It's Important

There are a number of critical flaws with the proposed development:

• DHEC’s decision allows filling 137 acres and excavating 72 acres of wetlands adjacent to Church and Rantowles Creeks. Wetlands provide numerous benefits for people and wildlife, including protecting and improving water quality, providing wildlife habitat and storing floodwaters. This type of “fill and build” activity is exactly what has led to repeated flooding in adjacent neighborhoods.

• Although the proposed construction will be conducted over a 30-year period, DHEC’s authorizations fail to account for how climate change impacts will effect the site over that period. For example, impacts from more intense and more frequent storm events must be considered to avoid placing more residents in harm’s way.

• Further, DHEC failed to consider how this project impacts the economic stability of West Ashley. Under their own guidelines, the agency must evaluate the extent to which a project is in the national interest and that includes consideration of the maintenance or improvement of the economic stability of the surrounding coastal community. The developers’ originally proposed average home price of $338,834 far exceeds the national, state and county definitions of affordable housing. In fact, it would be more expensive than 73 percent of the other homes in West Ashley.

We are asking the Administrative Law Court to reverse the certifications issued by DHEC.

“The Long Savannah Project mirrors other recent developments in the Lowcountry that lie in low areas. Conventional approaches not only cause the obliteration of natural drainage systems and destroy wetland habitats, they also do not take into account flooding due to a changing climate. This project should take a lesson from the Dutch Dialogues, a year long effort to conceptualize a more resilient Lowcountry by adapting developments to water systems, not adapting water systems to development,” said Sara Green, executive director of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.

“Wetlands are critical to protecting life and property because they soak up large amounts of floodwaters. This massive filling of wetlands will devastate a community already experiencing years of repeated flooding,” said Ben Mack, chair of the Sierra Club of South Carolina.

“This development is not priced for the people who actually live in West Ashley,” SCELP attorney Lauren Megill Milton said. “So what the community is getting is a development that they cannot afford, that will destroy a precious habitat for wildlife that they enjoy watching and that will exacerbate floods that will destroy the affordable housing they already live in.”

Case Update

After filing the Request for Contested Case, SCELP began to work up the case for trial. We obtained over 30,000 pages of documents from Long Savannah and several thousand pages from DHEC. Long Savannah sought to have the automatic stay lifted and we were able to keep the stay in place as it related to wetland impacts. 

As depositions began to be taken, Long Savannah approached all the Petitioners and settlement negotiations began. After over a month of negotiations, we were finally able to reach an agreement to resolve this matter. 

Long Savannah agreed to cut the proposed wetland fill by 50 acres—roughly half of the original fill proposed for residential development. In addition, Long Savannah agreed to improve the connectivity among 181 acres of wetlands. This increased connectivity will allow for better water storage and filtration and will enhance the habitat values of the area. Long Savannah also agreed to remove a roadbed/dike in the Church Creek Basin to improve water storage there.  Finally, Long Savannah agreed to fund a trust to address issues in the project area with a donation of $250,000.00.

These are significant improvements over the project that DHEC initially approved. We will continue to monitor this project as the stormwater plans are finalized.  

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