Brian Riesen says he moved to The Ponds subdivision in Summerville because he was promised a neighborhood rich with amenities that would preserve the natural beauty of the Ashley River’s headwaters and give residents an alternative to the clutter of cookie-cutter homes going up elsewhere in fast-growing Dorchester County.
So when he caught wind this summer of proposed changes to the neighborhood’s development agreement that he felt threatened that way of life, Riesen went to work.
Going line-by-line through hundreds of pages of real estate documents, Riesen posted his findings on social media and gathered nearly 700 signatures from fellow residents who are opposed to the plans. Then, he and Keane Steele, another homeowner in The Ponds, presented the petition to Dorchester County Council.
Kolter Homes, the property’s developer, pulled its proposed amendments from the county’s Planning Commission agenda as opposition grew. But the developer, which says the changes would benefit residents, not hurt them, plans to revive the plan.
“As a steward of the land and the developer owner, Kolter Homes seeks to enhance the quality of life of all residents,” Mike McLendon, Kolter’s regional vice president for the Carolinas, said in a statement.
Kolter inherited the current agreement from original developer Greenwood Development Corp., and McLendon said the proposed amendments “would positively impact the county and its residents.”
“We understand that some residents have misunderstood our goals and we wish to be clear about our reasons for requesting amendments,” McLendon said.
A new park, more homes
McLendon said the modifications have two primary goals: giving residents a 25-acre county park and rezoning property that currently could be used for apartments to a designation allowing only single-family homes.
The proposal goes much further than that, Riesen and Steele say.
“These amendments, after going through some rough calculations, reduce all these amenities by at least 50 percent,” Riesen told County Council, adding that the changes “are designed to maximize their (Kolter’s) corporate profits through the detriment to the county and its residents.”
According to a review of the proposal by The Post and Courier, it would:
- Allow construction of 200 more homes than originally planned, while reducing lot-size requirements.
- Eliminate a long-planned second entrance to the neighborhood off of Old Tower Road, leaving the one entrance at U.S. Highway 17-Alternate as the only access point.
- Eliminate a village center that was to include retail, such as a coffee shop, and offices where residents could set up businesses.
- Cut property devoted to social and cultural uses from a minimum of 188 acres to a minimum of 29.6 acres.
Kolter’s proposal also would eliminate 40 acres set aside for a new elementary school, offering the land instead for a public park.
Dorchester School District 2 turned down The Ponds site in 2013, citing seismic and wetlands issues. Earlier this year, however, schools Superintendent Joe Pye told Kolter and county officials that the district wants the land.
“Although the school district has not previously used the site at The Ponds, we have made it clear to the developer on numerous occasions that we were relying upon the land donation in our future site planning and to alleviate the overcrowding in our school district,” Pye wrote in an Aug. 25 letter to George Bailey, County Council chairman. “Given the district’s reliance on the use of the land allocated for school facilities in The Ponds, we oppose any change in the development agreement which does not require a land donation from the developer to the school district for the purposes of construction of school facilities.”
“This has caused a complicating situation,” McLendon said, because Kolter offered the property to Dorchester County Parks & Recreation after the school board rejected it. He said Kolter would help the school district find property for new schools, but the original site near the front of The Ponds is no longer appropriate because it cannot handle the traffic.
‘Not winning any friends’
Some residents say The Ponds’ developer tried to sneak the amendments through the approval process with little notice. Riesen and Steele said they learned about the plans only after a neighbor saw a sign advertising a county meeting and then went online to check the agenda.
“The fact that Kolter did not ask any residents for feedback or have any meeting discussing the proposed changes until after they were caught already on the planning commission’s agenda proves that the changes were not in our best interest,” Steele said.
Kolter did hold a trio of meetings after pulling its proposal from the agenda, all on the same afternoon, Riesen said, but declined to schedule meetings in the evening when more residents could attend.
The meetings were anything but friendly, said County Councilman David Chinnis, who attended as chairman of the Planning, Development & Building Committee and because he was asked to by some residents.
“I was a bit shocked by the presentation,” Chinnis said, adding the Kolter representative “was not winning any friends or influencing anyone. It was very aggressive.”
Chinnis and others said they took it as a threat when Kolter told residents at the meeting that if they didn’t support the amendments, the developer would sell property around Village Pond to build up to 500 apartments.
“The tone was very clear — pass these amendments or you get apartments,” Riesen said.
McLendon said the apartment discussion wasn’t intended as a threat, but that multifamily housing is something that’s required under the original development agreement. If the proposed amendments aren’t approved, he said Kolter “will be compelled to sell multifamily zoned lots to a multifamily builder” in order to follow the original agreement — something residents don’t want.
Kolter “prefers to amend the development agreement in support of residents’ feedback,” McLendon said.
‘Not the right thing to do’
Until this century, The Ponds was one of the last deep-woods stretches along the Ashley River in Summerville. Family-owned for three generations, the roughly 1,900-acre site surrounding Schultz Lake was primarily used by hunters.
Historians trace the property’s roots to 1682 as a King’s Grant to Arthur Percival, who, intrigued with its coastal lagoons, named the parcel The Ponds.
Percival built Weston Hall Plantation there, and a number of families harvested rice at the site into the 1800s.
The Simmons family acquired the land in 1911 to grow corn, cotton and sweet potatoes, and to raise sheep and goats.
Greenwood Development, which built the Coosaw Creek neighborhood in North Charleston, surveyed the property in 2004 and bought it the next year for $20.6 million, with an eye toward building a “traditional community” of homes, businesses, parks and recreation opportunities.
Kolter bought the remaining undeveloped property and assumed Greenwood’s development agreement in 2013.
Today, the community features its own fire station, a YMCA, bike paths, a swimming pool and a historic farmhouse that’s used as a community center.
All of those things drew Riesen and Steele to The Ponds, they said. What worries them now is the amenities they say they’ll lose if an amended development agreement is approved.
Riesen said he has a stack of marketing materials presented to prospective homeowners with promises that, to date, have not been kept.
“Some of the original Greenwood marketing talks about a second pool, a dog park and a village center,” he said. “Then, in small print, it says subject to change without notice. Legally, it’s CYA. Ethically, it’s kind of sketchy.”
Chinnis said he’s grown somewhat cynical during his time on County Council as developers sometimes pull a bait-and-switch by offering amenities like retail and office space to get a project approved only to come back years later asking for changes.
“We’ve got to put clawbacks in place when developers don’t do what they say they will,” Chinnis said. “I don’t know what the right answer is, but increasing the density as a result of not getting what you want or because you want to make more money is not the right thing to do.
“I don’t believe it’s the ethical thing to do,” he added. “If you sold a development to the homeowners that was going to have ‘X’ and ‘Y’ and all of a sudden ‘X’ and ‘Y’ aren’t going to make a lot of money for you or be as feasible as you thought, you need to work harder to make them feasible.”