MONCKS CORNER — Nearly 20 years ago, there was only talk of areas like Stony Landing making a comeback and the possibility of building larger neighborhoods along U.S. Highway 52.
There were no master plans for giant housing developments, and Foxbank Plantation was only a rumor coming out of Greenville.
Now, two decades and hundreds of new homes later, growth has become a word that frequently floats across “the Lowcountry’s hometown.”
“It’s here, it is here to stay and it will continue,” said longtime resident Pastor Tory Liferidge of Grace Reformed Episcopal Church.
In 2001, Moncks Corner established its first-ever planning department and town planner position in its nearly 250 years in existence. The purpose was to help the town figure out what residents want while involving them in a vision of the future for the impending growth.
In 2021, the town is still grappling with that growth as more homes are being built in neighborhoods surrounding the community, bringing more residents pouring into schools and along some of its rural roads.
And while the community hasn’t reached major tipping points the way other Lowcountry areas like Summerville and Goose Creek have, change is still coming.
The ongoing challenge now is encouraging the community to be proactively involved in shaping that future. That includes actions like participating in public input meetings and raising concerns about council decisions before they are finalized.
The upcoming Publix off U.S. Highway 52 is a signal for what’s to come. Many of the surrounding land parcels have already been sold. If there are concerns around traffic along the highway or other areas in Moncks Corner like Main Street, then it should serve as a reminder that the small town is approaching a shift.
It should also push residents to weigh in on growth plans.
Christmastime in a small town
On Dec. 3, the Christmas spirit made its Moncks Corner debut.
Residents and visitors gathered around the Market Pavilion off East Main Street to celebrate the town’s tree-lighting ceremony and bask in the community’s small town culture.
Neighboring the town’s Regional Recreation Complex, the community was all laughs and smiles as cars lined streets and fields to celebrate the holidays.
For many attendees, the event serves as a reminder of the thing they love most about the town.
“Everybody kind of knows everybody,” said Virginia Woolverton, one of many residents who were at the event with their families. “The kids love it.”
Colby Mackinem, another resident, said it’s nights like this that reassure him about living in the Moncks Corner area instead of somewhere closer to Charleston.
“It’s a real homey feeling around here,” he said.
Families gathered as performers played steel drums and local students moved through a tap dance routine, with parents smiling and holding up smartphones.
There was a quick and anticipated pause as attendees waited for a loud routine train to pass from behind the pavilion.
A couple of yards across from the pavilion, a small Christmas fair offered rides, food trucks, a small train for children and an opportunity to get photos with Santa.
It’s not a grand event on a beach, or a crowd of cars parked for miles with traffic. It feels more like a small Friday night football game with Christmas lights.
With a couple hundred people gathered, it’s easy to be reminded that Moncks Corner is still very much a small town.
Decisions that affect all
But the same crowd that came out for the Christmas celebration wasn’t present for a recent Town Council meeting during which public officials discussed what to do with $6 million in COVID relief funding the town is expected to receive in the coming months.
Like many towns across the country, it’s one of the largest pots of cash the community has seen.
During one of the council meetings where officials discussed some plans for that funding, most of the attendees were town staff. The only public comment came from a resident who reassured the council about his enthusiastic support for a traffic light in Foxbank Plantation.
That resident did exactly what many would advise him to do. He let officials know which decisions he supports and which ones he doesn’t before they were finalized.
“It’s too late once it’s done,” said Elaine Morgan, CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce.
Council-voted decisions go through multiple readings, and many go to the town’s Planning Commission before they even reach council. But once council members cast their final votes, many of the decisions that impact the town’s growth can’t be changed.
So residents are encouraged to meet and discuss their needs and present them to the public figures who represent them, regardless of whether the issue is on an agenda. This helps in shaping a community vision for growth.
For example, in April 2019, a large group of Moncks Corner residents with signs and T-shirts with the words “Save Gippy” written on them gathered at a council meeting to push back against the annexation of the landmark, Gippy Plantation.
Developers were looking to annex the property to build over 1,000 homes and turn existing farm structures into amenity centers. Following public pushback and flood concerns, the Planning Commission denied the annexation.
In 1999, the U.S. census reported that around 6,260 people were living in Moncks Corner. In 2020, that number had jumped to more than 13,000.
In its most recent council election, where seven people were pushing for three open seats, a little more than 1,400 residents cast their votes.
DeWayne Kitts was reelected for one of the open seats in that election. He’s been living in Moncks Corner since 1984 when he moved from Virginia.
The recent voter turnout doesn’t surprise him. It wasn’t a large presidential or state election and there wasn’t a lot of interest.
Kitts said he and others are used to getting calls about minor issues that can be addressed without a vote from council. But he typically doesn’t get any calls or outreach about anything major, like the COVID relief funds, until well after things have been finalized.
Those relief funds are expected to be used to support employees and help with infrastructure projects around Whitesville Road, Jolly Lane and the California Branch.
Neighborhoods near the town such as Foxbank Plantation, Cypress Preserve and Strawberry Station are expected to bring in thousands more homes and much more movement in the Moncks Corner area.
“We’re almost a metropolitan area,” Kitts said.
Driving down Main Street, there are various restaurants and shops, all adding to the town’s revitalization efforts in the downtown area. Doug Polen, the town’s community development director, and other officials said the goal is to keep residents in town versus having them drive to other cities for work or recreational activities.
At the same time, they’re still trying to be mindful around traffic concerns becoming a larger problem.
“You can’t walk that back,” Polen said.
There are constitutional reasons why growth can’t be stopped. And most residents understand that when someone is telling them what they can or cannot do on their property.
Those same property rights extend to people who want to build homes or communities. But in order for officials to make decisions that follow the vision of the community, they have to receive that pressure and involvement from residents.
If people, for example, want U.S. Highway 52 to only have commercial spaces and no homes, they have to voice that to officials.
But in general, even people who may not be big fans of growth want more options for restaurants or activities in their community.
“The steakhouse doesn’t come unless more people live here,” Polen said.
And getting involved in those growth-vision conversations is pretty straightforward.
It’s on the community
There are different theories as to why there isn’t a large amount of community engagement with growth decisions in town.
Some argue that many residents don’t want the community to change and don’t want to face the inevitable.
Others said the disinterest comes from a lack of hope in their voices being heard.
Regardless, Liferidge said it’s on the community, not the officials, to push that engagement.
In the coming year, the town will be organizing its comprehensive plan. This will map out a detailed vision of the future of the town in the next 15-20 years.
During the planning process, the town will host a series of community input meetings. It’s one of the best chances to play an active role in helping shape what’s to come.
Part of the work in strengthening that engagement can come from community leaders like Liferidge. They have the opportunity to educate the community so they can better advocate for themselves.
“Literally, decisions are being made by a handful of people,” Liferidge said.
Some of that education can include informing younger people in the community about the power of their vote. For Black residents who live on the outskirts of town limits, there are also opportunities for leaders to have more conversations around the pros and cons of getting their property within those limits.
Through his church, Liferidge also works with the Grace Impact Development Center, a community development organization that supports at-risk populations across the county.
In addition to infrastructure, areas like affordable housing and the need for senior living spaces are concerns that should be addressed in the growth conversation.
Community members are some of the best advocates for raising awareness on those issues.
“All of that has to be on the table,” Liferidge said.
72-year-old resident Cliff Thomas has two grandchildren in the Berkeley County School District and fears the effect the growth will have on the schools.
Superintendent Deon Jackson recently disclosed to county officials in a Planning Commission meeting that the county is growing faster than the district can afford to build schools.
Issues like that are why the community has to engage more, Thomas said.
“Stay on top of it, stay on local officials,” he said.
Community needs and concerns are also relative. For some, improving quality of life could involve adding sidewalks. For others, it could be increasing broadband access or improving their water system.
Without consistent input, vital choices are left to a small group of people. “You have to tell people what your needs are,” Morgan said.
A good first step for someone interested in participating in these conversations would be to attend a Planning Commission meeting. The group meets on the fourth Tuesday of each month. According to Polen, “that’s where the stuff happens.”
If a resident wants to take it a step further, they can go to the town’s website and apply to be on the Planning Commission. Even if they aren’t selected, it lets officials know of another person they can reach out to when looking to build around the vision of the community.
Town Council meets every third Tuesday. Even if a resident doesn’t have a public comment, it’s a chance to learn about what is happening in town.