By Charlie Morrison for The Island Eye News
Mount Pleasant Town Council voted last week to settle a potential, multi-million-dollar lawsuit filed against the Town in 2015 over the Town’s blockage of “the Atlantic Project,” a 224-unit apartment complex slated to be constructed at the foot of the Ben Sawyer Bridge, was once called “the Gateway into Mount Pleasant from Sullivan’s Island.”
The nine-member body voted by a tight, 4-3 margin (with two Councilmen abstaining) to settle the lawsuit at their Tuesday, July 11 meeting. Should they have voted against the settlement, it would have gone to court and should the Town have lost, it could have cost them more than $6 million, virtually wiping out the municipality’s general fund monies.
The Town voted on the project Tuesday night after an executive session during which they discussed the issue, at the end of a well-attended but exhaustive, nearly six-hour meeting. Council members Bob Brimmer, Elton Carrier and Mark Smith joined Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page in voting for the settlement. Councilman Gary Santos abstained, stating conflict of interest in the matter as his son works for the Town’s opponent in the case, property developer Middle Street Partners, LLC.
Councilman Paul Gawrych was not present for the vote. With only Councilmen Jim Owens, Joe Bustos and Will Haynie voting in dissent, voting, in effect to take the case to court, the decision to settle the suit passed by a slim, 4-3 vote.
As a result of the settlement, Middle Street Partners will proceed with a slimmed down site plan for the Atlantic Project in March of 2019, when a temporary apartment complex moratorium currently imposed by the Town expires. Agreed upon during court-ordered mediation, changes to the project plan included the elimination of one building slated for the site, 22 residential units and all of the commercial space in the development, including a proposed restaurant many including the Mayor believed would exacerbate the traffic impact.
“When I originally voted against the project it was due to concerns about mitigating traffic,” said Page at the meeting.
“If we had lost the lawsuit, the Town could have faced a large financial risk. Sometimes you have to be a leader and protect the Town and the finances… it’s the right thing to do.”
In the eyes of project developer Middle Street Partners, Town Council’s vote to agree to the terms of the court-mediated settlement was for all parties, the right thing to do.
“There was compromise on both sides,” said Middle Street Partners co-founder Ryan Knapp after the meeting. “The reason this ended up being litigated was that we really spent a couple of years on it, a lot of time and energy on it. We’re a business that makes decisions based on what we know is permitted. We pursued this site based on the fact that it was zoned a certain way and it’s a great, great piece of property.”
The Atlantic Project was originally a mixed-use project that called for the construction of 246 units along with 14,000 square feet of retail space to be located in a multi-building complex built on eight acres of high ground where the old Channel 4 News station is now located. The project was quashed back in April 2015 after Mount Pleasant Town Council voted to deny the concept plan and impact statement for the project, though the project plan showed a design for the development that was compliance with the Town’s zoning, density and height limits, and according to traffic engineers employed by the developer, would actually alleviate some traffic on Ben Sawyer Blvd.
Back in 2015, the project was one of several, potential, multi unit residential projects to be caught up in litigation with the Town of Mount Pleasant.
The Councilmembers were, and are, under pressure from preservationist groups like Save Shem Creek to address mounting concerns over Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island traffic.
In November of that year, with the litigation pending, Mount Pleasant voters went to the polls and voted in a slate of candidates backed by the preservation group. Meanwhile, the legal process, on its way ultimately to mediation, was ongoing.
“We felt like we had a strong case. They tried to get it dismissed, and the judge wouldn’t allow that, they made a motion for a summary judgment and the judge would not allow that,” Knapp continued. “If it wasn’t a strong case from our standpoint that would not have happened. I think once that happened the opposing side probably realized, they probably said to themselves ‘if it went to trial we may end up with an outcome they we want to avoid, let’s compromise and see if we can come up with something that works for the Middle Street guys.’”
“We gave a lot. We’re sensitive to the things that they brought up, and did our best,” Knapp continued. “In removing a building, the one that’s closest to the marsh, in removing all of the commercial space, in keeping the heights lower…in doing that it was our goal to satisfy even the faction of Council that had aligned with Save Shem Creek.”
Sullivan’s Island Mayor Pat O’Neill expressed resolve for the development. “The project is obviously completely within the purview of the Town of Mount Pleasant but the impact on us remains to be seen,” O’Neill told The IEN, adding, “We have already been increasingly feeling the growing impact of the Charleston area, this brings it closer to home.”
The mayor expressed concerns about traffic and island access to residents, visitors and emergency vehicles, but stated he is, “hopeful that Mount Pleasant and the South Carolina Department of Transportation will work out plans to ensure ongoing access to/from the island will be affected as little as possible”. When asked if there’s a possibility that access could be improved O’Neill said he hadn’t considered that, “But anything is possible.”
Middle Street Partners remains steadfast in their plan for progress and adherence to local regulations. “I don’t have any problem whatsoever with politicians changing laws to prevent development,” said Knapp. “That’s fine, as long as we know what the laws are. What you can’t do is have laws, allow businesses to make decisions based on those laws, and then change the goalposts on them. We just need to know what the rules are.”