'Tread lightly on the land'

The reincarnation of Cainhoy Plantation - Part 2

(Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a series of articles The Daniel Island News is preparing on the new Cainhoy Plantation community, a 9,000 acre tract that is now in its beginning stages of development. Our first article explored the overall development project -- and this piece examines the environmental factors that are influencing planning. In future issues, we will highlight the historical aspects of the site, as well as the development’s potential economic impact in the region.)

When award-winning architect and urban planner Jaquelin T. Robertson, one of the original designers of the present day Daniel Island community, was asked by those involved in the development of Cainhoy Plantation to identify guiding principles for the project, he urged them to “tread lightly on the land…and aim high.”

With forests of loblolly and longleaf pines and more than 3,200 acres of wetlands and marshes, the property is considered a significant ecological asset to the region, according to the Coastal Conservation League (CCL) -- and home to many endangered and threatened animal and plant species.

“A broad plateau of old-growth Longleaf pine forest, some 40 feet in elevation, stretches from the Francis Marion National Forest across the northern portion of the Cainhoy property, providing habitat for 16 endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker colonies and populations of Gopher Frogs and Flatwoods Salamanders,” states the CCL on its website.

In 1971, the plantation’s previous owner, the late Harry Frank Guggenheim, left the massive parcel to his cousin, Peter Lawson-Johnston Sr., who, along with his family, still holds the property today through various entities. Many citizens taking part in public hearings on the Cainhoy Plantation project in 2013 and 2014, as well as the CCL and other groups, called for a full-scale environmental study of the land to assess the impacts of development on the property, which is expected to one day accommodate up to 9,000 homes as per current plans.

When whispers of a master planned community on the site first began to stir, Lawson-Johnston and his family were urged to consider the tract’s natural connectivity of habitats and impacts to biodiversity and culture when contemplating its future.

The property’s evolution from a quiet recreational, hunting and timbering preserve to a large-scale master planned community is still in its very beginning stages. But much has been done in recent years to fine tune the plantation’s overall environmental plan, with preservation and conservation in mind, state executives of the DI Development Company (DIDC), the entity managing the plantation’s development on behalf of the Lawson-Johnston family.


“One of the things that was made very clear to us was that everybody wanted to see this done in a comprehensive manner,” said Matt Sloan, president of the DIDC, “meaning that all of the development would be studied all at once. So we did something that is pretty unprecedented. We’re wrapping up wetlands delineation on all 9,000 acres of the property here. Which means every bit of wetland, highland, where they come together, has been painstakingly surveyed.”

The company hired by the DIDC to conduct those surveys, as well as to assess environmental conditions on the property, was Sabine and Waters, Inc., a land management and consulting firm based in Summerville. The firm has spent the last two years flagging wetlands, said vice president Bart Sabine.

“When we go through the different options about what can be built, we are always looking at conservation value as being what drives the process,” explained Sabine. “Things are not always done that way with a lot of developments. But these landowners…they love this piece of land and they don’t want to adversely impact any more than necessary to try to maintain those conservation values.”

The developers state they have spent nearly 10 years in planning and preparing for the property’s reincarnation as a residential and mixed-use community. According to information on the project provided by the DIDC, their efforts include undertaking proactive studies of wetlands, ecological, historical and cultural assets; engagement of wildlife and habitat consultants; analysis of the potential impacts on natural resources; and cooperatively working with the conservation community to create innovative mitigation plans that incorporate natural resources into the fabric of the community.

The end result? A conservation-focused master plan that takes its inspiration from the land itself, said Carolyn Lancaster, vice president of marketing for the DIDC.

“The vision and plan for the community celebrates the outdoors,” explained Lancaster, “and encourages its enjoyment via innovative nature trails/footpaths and bikeways that connect people to rivers, creeks, parks, ecosystems and the land’s rich history.”

Less than half of the property will be actively developed and includes 1,000 acres of usable open space, parks, trails, lakes and natural areas for residents and public enjoyment, noted Lancaster. Over 50 percent of the parcel will remain as undeveloped natural areas, she said.

Wetlands systems throughout the property provide wildlife with important corridors to and from the Francis Marion National Forest, added Sloan, so many of them will be preserved.

“In our conservation plan, connection to the forest in some way shape or form for people and for wildlife, that was viewed as a priority,” he said.

But perhaps the “crown jewel” of the Cainhoy Plantation’s environmental plan is what the developers describe as their “innovative onsite mitigation” effort – “thousands of acres of preserved property that will provide vital habitat with connectivity for plant and animal species.” And at the centerpiece of it all will be “Point Hope Nature Sanctuary,” a 500-acre public open space that will allow the developer to mitigate for environmental impacts on site, instead of outside of the new community in other parts of the region.

According to Sabine, the development plan currently being crafted shows that only about 7 to 8 percent of wetlands will be impacted. The rest, he continued, will be preserved.

“We’re minimizing our impacts,” added Sloan. “That’s the first thing you have to do. Impacting the least amount that you need to…It became clear that we’re going to have 100 plus acres of impact and we can mitigate for those on property in a pretty interesting and innovative way…What we said is we’ll treat that as our mitigation site and we’ll turn it into a nature sanctuary and preserve it and have trails that go to it, possibly through it, and we’ll try to add an educational component. This will be the crux of our permit application that we’re going in for later this year.”


Recognizing development impacts to animals and other living creatures, Sloan and his team have also worked to create habitat enhancement plans, he said. Among them – a first in the region “re-wilding” program for endangered and threatened species. The developers, with guidance and assistance from Sabine and Waters, have undertaken a translocation effort to reintroduce Red Cockaded Woodpecker colonies, well established on the Cainhoy Plantation property, into the Ace Basin after a 100-year absence.

“We’ve successfully introduced Red Cockaded Woodpeckers to two significant properties in the Ace Basin,” said Sloan. “We have several years of breeding results!”

“We have established a new population that has essentially changed the ecology of the Ace Basin - to put this one species that was extinct back into the landscape,” added Sabine. “We’re real excited about that.”

They are also now entering their fifth year of monitoring for the endangered Flatwood Salamander on the Cainhoy property – but the species has proven to be non-existent, noted Sloan.

“We can’t find it,” he continued. “But we said let’s preserve this habitat anyway, in the event the salamander decides to resurface.”

Additionally, they plan to continue prescribed burns on the property to manage wildlife risk and to maintain an ecosystem for endangered and sensitive species.

“It only works for them if the land is burned and the undergrowth on the forest floor is controlled,” Sloan added. “If the undergrowth gets out of control, which is what happens if you’re not managing the property, then the species become harmed.”


The CCL once noted that the Cainhoy Plantation parcel is perhaps “the single most important piece of property under threat of development in coastal South Carolina,” and the group implored developers when the PUD was first introduced to avoid destroying or endangering natural assets. So what are their thoughts on the project now, in light of the developers newly announced environmental preservation plans?

“It’s starting to go in the right direction,” said Jason Crowley, CCL’s director of communities and transportation. “…We have been able to maintain pretty good communication with the DI Development Company and the family members who own the property.”

Crowley noted the CCL is pleased to hear that the property will be developed with a lower density overall and that an industrial buffer on Cainhoy Road, along the border that separates the parcel from the Francis Marion National Forest, is no longer part of the plan. The onsite mitigation plan and Point Hope Sanctuary also sound promising, he said. But according to Crowley, the CCL has long maintained that the northern side of the tract, between Clements Ferry Road and the Cooper River, “contains some of the most important natural resources on the site” and should be the focus of conservation efforts.

“It’s still a work in progress,” he said, adding that the CCL would prefer that most of the development take place on the southern portion of the property, between Clements Ferry Road and the Wando River. “We would like to see all of the mitigation done on the northern half, and we would like ultimately to have the northern half have little to no development at all as a way to protect the environmental resources and cultural resources.”

Another reason for preserving more space on the northern side, added Crowley, is its proximity to the BP plant off Cainhoy Road.

“Having a chemical plant so close…in our opinion, there really should be more involvement with BP in this conversation to consider acquiring the northern top of the property as a buffer,” he said. “…That site is located in the middle of nowhere for a reason. They probably don’t want houses right up against them either.”

The owners of the property have offered to sell a buffer to BP, but the company has declined, stated Lancaster.

As the project continues to move forward, efforts on behalf of the owners to maintain good stewardship of the land have not gone unnoticed.

“The early phases of development at Cainhoy are consistent with the planned unit development adopted by the city in 2014,” stated City of Charleston Planning Director Jacob Lindsey. “The developer also continues to work collaboratively on improvements to infrastructure such as road widening and improved fire service. With regard to cultural and natural resources, it’s our understanding that the developer is working closely with the appropriate state agencies to ensure that they are protected and preserved going forward.”

“The preservation effort is a step in the right direction,” added Crowley. “But there is still more that can and should be done on the northern half…With a little creativity they can achieve their goals without destroying the northern portion, particularly to do something to honor the Guggenheim legacy. Harry Frank Guggenheim chose this area to live because of his love of the Lowcountry – things like Colonial-era roads, cultural diversity and natural resources. All of that could and should be conserved.”

Sabine noted that he and his team, along with developers, have worked closely with the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust, the Nature Conservancy, the Lowcountry Land Trust, the Army Corps of Engineers and others to ensure the property is developed with a preservation-minded, comprehensive approach. And he is confident that Cainhoy Plantation will one day be a place residents will be proud to call home.

“It’s a big, long job to do it this way,” he said. “But the end result should be something that is really going to be a shining star in this part of the country.”

Developers plan to submit their extensive environmental permit package for Cainhoy Plantation to the Army Corps of Engineers in January of next year.

Daniel Island Publishing

225 Seven Farms Drive
Unit 108
Daniel Island, SC 29492 

Office Number: 843-856-1999
Fax Number: 843-856-8555


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