UnsettledThe Settlement at Ashley Hall Plantation is West Ashley’s Latest Development Battle
May 17, 2017
By Bill Davis | News Editor
There’s a new development fight roiling in West Ashley, with the battleground beginning at the doorstep to the oldest plantation on the Ashley River.
Roll down Ashley River Road like you’re headed to Drayton Hall, but turn onto Ashley Hall Plantation Road right before Interstate 526 crosses over, and take that road until it terminates at the main gate to Ashley Hall Plantation.
It’s there that locals, neighbors, and a Myrtle Beach developer are brawling over how best to develop the last 20 buildable acres of what had been a 1,000-acre plantation first founded in the 1670s.
The plantation, or what’s left of it, is home to the oldest building in the state and a monument to former Gov. William Bull, and resides on the National Register of Historic Places.
The fight has all the hallmarks of every Charleston development battle: property rights, property value, preservation, politics, family intrigue, and so on. And it has the familiar element of a preservable historical jewel not being protected in West Ashley.
In January, Myrtle Beach-based Carolina Holdings Group (CHG) purchased 45 acres along the Ashley River, with 25 of the acres unsuitable for building, for $4.4 million. Located within Charleston County, it currently falls under county zoning ordinances, and a plan to build more than 40 stand-alone homes was soon crafted, and dubbed The Settlement.
But looking into the site and all of its historical value, which includes other structures and houses, CHG’s Gary Wadsten began hiring experts to see if that was the best use of the land.
After spending what he said was a substantial amount of money, Wadsten decided to try and get the property annexed into the City of Charleston, whose zoning would allow for more units. Wadsten said working with the city would make it easier to cut a deal with Historic Charleston Foundation for the preservation of the significant structures.
But several homeowners living in the area were split on the idea of wether to develop the land at all, and to what density.
Larry Freudenberg, who lives in the gated Ashley Harbor neighborhood within shouting distance of the front gate, wants to stop the annexation in the city and halt any further development of what’s left of the former rice plantation.
Freudenberg, a local insurance agent, echoed the words of a neighbor. “Downtown they fight over the color of houses, but when it comes to one of the most historic sites in the area they want to throw it to the wolves,” he said.
“My contention is that in Charleston, a city that prides itself on preservation, why would anyone even think about building on that property?” said Freudenberg, who has launched Save Ashley Hall Plantation that has more than 650 members following his posts on social media.
David Rosenberg, who lives down the street from the plantation, but not in Freudenberg’s gated neighborhood, has taken a less strident position.
Also an insurance agent, Rosenberg wouldn’t mind if the developer went in and did 12 bigger lots, and argued that Wadsten could probably make as much money by selling fewer, but higher-priced homes.
Rosenberg is especially against the idea of annexing, as the higher density allowed under the city’s zoning ordinance would also allow for “clustering” of smaller homes, a la I’On in Mt. Pleasant.
Rosenberg argued that would lower the value of homes already in the area, and the traffic would be a nightmare.
Civic planners generally cite seven car trips daily per housing unit. Wadsten’s 61-unit cluster plan would mean more than 400 additional car trips on the quiet road.
Rosenberg said he understood how some could see his position as hypocritical, as his home of the past 10-plus years also resides on the former plantation, but argued the significant pieces of history are located behind the plantation’s gates.
Like Freudenberg, Rosenberg also scoffs at City Hall’s intent to snatch up a former Piggly Wiggly along Olde Town Road for a park, instead of using that money to save the plantation. “[The Park] would be bordered by highways 171 and 7! Who would build a park there? If your dog got loose, it would be toast,” he said.
On Friday, CHG’s Wadsten doubled down on his promise to create a park within his The Settlement, run and managed by locals, open to the public, and buffered by more greenspace than is required by the county. But he said, the “economics” don’t work outside of annexing into the city if he were to do all that.
Wadsten also lamented what he saw as a “misinformation” campaign being waged against his project, and asked the public to visit a website he had constructed,
So that leaves locals with a tough choice: block annexation in the name of fewer homes, but lose out on preserving history; or allow for more density and traffic and get a historic park.
Charlie Smith, a member of the Charleston County Planning Commission, said he’s seen the plans Wadsten submitted to the county and said they are “completely in line” with county zoning.
Smith said ruefully that he’s seen this paradigm before, where a deserving piece of history located in West Ashley doesn’t get the preservation attention it needs until right before the bulldozers begin rolling.
A few years ago, Smith, an ardent preservationist, jumped out of his car at the intersection of Wappoo Drive and Savannah Highway and threw his hands up in the air to stop an articulated loader from further tearing down a vegetable shed that had once been the agricultural center of West Ashley.
It was too little too late, and the shed came down, as the state had not put any type of protective development covenant on the property and personal property rights won out over historic preservation. Being on the national register doesn’t protect a site, as it turns out.
“I hate to see it happen, especially with a very significant place like Ashley Hall Plantation,” said Smith, echoing complaints that downtown has always received more protection. “But very much like so many West Ashley sites, they are not held in high regard. That attitude is changing, but very slowly, and because of that we once again have this painful situation.”
County Councilman Brantley Moody represents West Ashley, and said county staff is “ready to work with all stakeholders if [the plantation] is not annexed into the City of Charleston.”
The plantation falls within the district of City Councilman Rodney Williams, who has taken a beating over his position supporting the development and annexation. Williams declined to comment for this story.
City Councilman Keith Waring, whose district abuts what’s left of the plantation, thinks he may have a solution.
“Look, I ride my bicycle through there; I know what’s there needs to be protected,” said Waring.
Waring wants all the parties involved to consider allowing the property to developed as a Planned Urban Development, which he said allow for higher levels of accountability of the developers.
Waring also said that the county has proven in the past, like with Magnolia Gardens and Drayton Hall, that it can do a first-rate job of guiding preservation.
Wadsten, however, said he would not pursue a Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning, as he claimed it wouldn’t be economically feasible.
Several local politicians were saying publicly over the weekend at a West Ashley revitalization and planning event at Citadel Mall what they wouldn’t say for attribution in the paper: bulldozers are going to roll and some sort of development is about to happen at the former plantation.
Whatever does happen, Waring said that care in development needs to taken. “This is a unique property, and should be done in a cookie-cutter fashion, like it’s Anywhere, USA.”