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State of the Creek: State of the Future

State of the Creek: State of the Future
August 2016
Perhaps the most notable change that will soon affect the creek is the multistory office building being erected at Coleman Boulevard and Mill Street. Colloquially referred to as the “Shem Creek Parking Garage,” its modern design and 55-foot height have been hotly contested for its nearness to the creek and historic district and for the way it will alter the area’s small-town, fishing-village aesthetic.

The project was conceptualized in 2010 by the Town of Mount Pleasant to offset the need for parking in this busy area and as a component of the municipality’s plans for the revitalization of Coleman Boulevard. Working with developer Tex Small and with $2.7 million in accommodations tax money committed by the town, the project gradually morphed from simple parking garage to a general use office building, with parking available to the public after business hours and on weekends.

The unpopularity of the project has made this one of the most controversial issues in recent town history. For many, the “parking garage” became synonymous with other frustrating development issues accompanying the town’s escalating population. Bolstered by advocacy organizations, such as Save Shem Creek Corp., and informal activist groups, like The Creekers, citizens bombarded council hearings in such numbers, town administrators had to arrange for special facilities to accommodate them.

Last summer, Save Shem Creek initiated a lawsuit with hopes of legally stopping the parking garage. The town countersued. In a case of too little, too late, ground was broken for the building in November. Both lawsuits were dropped this spring.

“They made their mistake by not placing an injunction on the project early on,” says Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page, who inherited the parking garage issue, as well as a population and building explosion, when she took office in 2013. When Mayor Page graduated from Wando High School in 1976, the town had some 9,000 residents. Recent census estimates count 81,300.

In 2015, four new town council members with shared concerns around land use were voted into office. Since then, council has initiated steps to stem the tide of development, including changes in building height; new set-back parameters; and, in some cases, halting proposed developments altogether. This has brought some developers, including Tex Small, to react through litigation. The town is now facing multiple lawsuits from developers seeking reparation of monies they assert were lost because of changed guidelines.

“It’s frustrating,” explains Mayor Page. “Controlling density, holding on to green space, and managing growth are key issues on my agenda.” Yet she cautions those who have hopes for a quick fix. “I’m like the small motor boat, one that can stop on a dime, quickly turn around and speed back to fix things. But that’s not how municipalities work. They’re like the big container ships that come into the harbor. It takes them forever just to slow down and even longer to make that wide, slow turnaround. But we are getting there. There are now more restrictions on new development and we have a motivated town council. It’s all encouraging. I think we are heading in the right direction.”

As for the state of Shem Creek, Mayor Page is energized, particularly with the continued expansion of the town’s park facilities there. The second phase is almost complete and includes new docks and boardwalks. “We’ve got a lot of good stuff going on,” she says. “We’re finally reaching an agreement around liability insurance that will allow trawlers without insurance to use the docks along the park side of the creek. The creek’s businesses are thriving, and we’re doing everything we can to promote the shrimpers. We use the hashtag “#eatlocal,” and the town is delighted to have the fish market on Saturdays. I think the state of the creek is great.”

While “buying local” is catching on, it still has a ways to go. Many of the restaurants on the creek don’t even serve locally caught shrimp. “People need to ask where the shrimp they are ordering for dinner comes from,” says Pam Rector. “They automatically assume they are eating shrimp caught by the trawlers they can see from the restaurant window.”

Chris Crolley of Coastal Expeditions thinks the state of the creek is fine. “Our clients are having a wonderful time enjoying the water,” he says. “Right now, if I were to take someone out for a 15-minute paddle, we’d see some 15 different species of birds and perhaps dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles. When they came up with the ‘Save Shem Creek’ group, my first thought was, ‘Save it from what?’”

That’s a good question. The mummichogs are still alive and swimming, yet the creek’s sediment and water quality, especially at the headwaters, remain dangerously precarious.

Perhaps the state of the creek can best be summarized as “pivotal.” The shrimpers are holding their own. Pleasure craft happily ply the waters. Yet the creek is absorbing more use than ever before in its history. More people, more development all cast a shadow on this place’s uncertain future.

If you missed any section of the Shem Creek story click here to view all the articles.