Mount Pleasant, SC- In the waning days of 1999, as I was planning the children’s activities for the First Night Charleston Millennium celebration in Charleston, SC, I signed a contract to purchase a new home in a greenfield traditional neighborhood development in nearby Mount Pleasant, SC called I’On. I chose to pay 160 thousand dollars more for a smaller home on a 1/10th of an acre lot to participate in a radical experiment in building community in the 21st. Century than a split level on a quarter acre in nearby Point Pleasant subdivision.
I invite you to read this essay to its final ask in hopes that your children will grow up to become contributing citizens, your personal wealth shall be preserved and your planet will survive. My cautionary tale will be complex, but informative. It may save you from being a well meaning fool embarrassed by a negative example in the hands of a person who believes the keystone pipeline and an assault rifle are the solutions to your family’s problems.
It begins, like every American story with a departure, an arrival and a dream.
Please click the "continue reading" for the main body of my essay.
Departing Old Charleston
We left downtown Charleston due to problems with the school options available to our son and to be near my extended family in the nearby town I grew up in. On the day we moved in, both of my parents lived within walkable distance in the riverfront home I grew up in nearby Hobcaw, as did my brother and my son's only cousin. My only surviving grandparent live in a nursing home across the street. When my son was born in 1992, 20 children lived on our block in downtown Charleston. The day we moved, no children over the age of two did. The historic city no longer appeared to be the best place for Jackson to grow up. He, however, protested the decision to move. He was on a first name basis with the Mayor and knew the historic city well. His eight year old judgement may have been better than my own.
The new community, which had already survived political struggle to be permitted, would bring neighbors together and empower them with a dense, walkable and connected landscape to enrich each other’s lives. Mixed use would bring residents, business, civil and cultural life into close proximity. We would know our neighbors and raise our children together. We would be able to model the role of a contributing, constructive member of the community and active citizen for our children, who would develop into adults who could build lives and communities where they had some influence over the quality of life and culture which surrounded them.
I understand that this seems quaint the deeply cynical America which now surrounds us all. This was before a botched and possibly fraudulent Presidential election in 2000, the 9-11 Attacks, two destructive and wasteful wars and two deeply damaging economic contractions. It was before the high hope that the election of Barack Obama brought and the Occupy uprising were crushed by the corporate owned politics. I ask you to remember, if you can, how hopeful we all were at the time in a nation which had both prosperity and peace.
Trial by Jury
On Wednesday, January 16 at 9:30 am in the Charleston County Courthouse two years of expensive and massively disruptive litigation over the fate and composition of the community I hoped to help build will come into focus. My neighbors will try their case before a Jury against our Homeowner’s Association and the developer, Vince Graham and the I’On company charging them with promising the community some critical amenities necessary to make our social and civic life function and then selling them off for a handsome profit to a for profit LLC which may have been owned by some of my other neighbors. These amenities include what in the South Carolina Lowcountry are critical social spaces: our community waterfront, docks and boat ramp; a waterfront community center called the Creek Club, with it’s wide porch and lawn and a portion of our marsh front walking trail. Their total economic value exceeds two million dollars. There are no private docks or deep water access allowed in our community. In its 15 years of existence the developer has successfully prevented the community from ever managing to build or obtain an indoor space of its own in which to hold meetings or social events.
Starving Children in Africa and American Complaints
I understand my complaints appear to be trivial. I know that a third of the people on this planet are malnourished, live in primitive conditions and lack secure access to potable water, decent employment or transportation. I understand that a 53 year old attorney, with a full refrigerator and an investment account could be dismissed as having no complaints of which anyone should take notice. I have spent enough time at the beds of the dying, the precincts of the hungry and the homeless in Charleston and the locations of the disasters of our time to know there are more important issues.
However I also know that the fundamental building block of our society is the local community. It is where our children learn to be citizens. It is where crime and anti social behavior is either contained by mutual expectations or levels all hope of a decent life. It is the context is which birth, education, family formation, aging and ultimately death take place.
The family, which is the constituent unit of the neighborhood or community, is a naturally occurring social unit. While we generally regard it as the building block of our society, the family (being grounded in the inescapable contexts of reproductive biology) survives nearly any social condition. There are endless proofs in history that families continue to exist in truly horrific social contexts. The family unit survives in Somalia for instance, even though the society which surrounds it is mindlessly violent and the larger social orders have failed for over two decades. In such societies retreat to the extended family’s compound, behind bricks and razor wire is a proven tool for basic survival. A loaded AK47 rests by the door. Such families aren’t the building block of a society because no society exists around them. I understand that this is a generalization and that organized communities, neighborhoods and tribal groups exist in some parts of that country.
I have been a guest of the Contrade Occa of Sienna Italy, one of 17 tightly organized neighborhood associations in that City that share the roughly square mile within that city’s walls. These neighborhoods have survived the black death, centuries of Tuscan warfare, WWII and more recently economic struggle. I regard the evening I spent having a community dinner at tables set up in it’s streets, followed by singing and parading through the medieval streets to be the most important experience of my life, apart from Marriage and raising my son, who was with me that night. I have seen community and neighborhood at it’s best and most enduring. The Contrade had its own church, museum and community center. An industrial scale kitchen enabled them to feed hundreds of people. There were walls or trophies and awards celebrating centuries of contests with the other contrade, ranging from the victory in the world famous horse race through the streets there to their recent triump in a youth soccer tournament which the presented to me and my son as carrying equal dignity.
Sienna has virtually no crime or Juvenal delinquency as Italians define them. While neighborhood life there now is weaker than it was a century ago, it is one of many proven models in the world. You can find others in Zulu villages in Africa, among tribes in the Amazon and on mountainside in Nepal. You will, however, have a tough time finding anything like these places in contemporary America.
Building a 21st. Century Neighborhood
We gathered to build something like that in I’On. We contracted for construction a house (later discovered to have hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction defects) and moved in in September of 2000. The first weekend, we held the first rehearsal of a neighborhood chamber music group, “I’Onissimo!” which would hold over 100 performances over the next ten years. I was a cub scout leader. We helped build a remarkable Orthodox Church which stands 300 feet from my front door, where despite our liberal theology, they have prayed for my family and lighted cherished candles in our hope in our dark hours of death and illness.
We helped build a charter school. I authored the community guidebook and portions of a community photo history, I’On at Ten, Life in the New Village. My family, including my son, who grew to adulthood in that house and through these experiences, helped produce over 250 community events. In 2004, at what we now recognize at the beginning of the effort, I received the first Civitas Award, our highest recognition for service to the community, a recognition not only to me, but to my family and the many neighbors who helped with asked and often before they were asked.
In the early years of the community, when selling lots and houses at the premium being charged required high profile civic and cultural activity open to residents and the larger community (including potential buyers) the Creek Club building and its large porch were used for concerts, community dinners, business association events. These often took place on weekends when the adjacent dock and boat ramp were in active use, producing an active social scene. In the SC Lowcountry boating is a popular activity. I grew up in adjacent Hobcaw where it’s working class Yacht Club and pool were and still are today the social center of that community. The Creek Club building itself was modeled on the Sea Island Yacht Club in Rockville, SC a historic and nationally famous social center where community life and the water are in contact.
Once few lots were left to be sold in I’On and a failed development in North Charleston, known as Mixon (built after an existing low income housing project was leveled and its residents ejected with professional assistance) produced economic problems, the Creek Club was monetized more aggressively. Access to the boat ramp and docks were restricted. Kids were no longer allowed to fish from the docks during the expensive weddings which took place nearly every Saturday and Sunday. The boat ramp was shut down at inconvenient times. Our Town determined that rentals were not inconsistent with a “Civic Use” zoning, even if the building was owned by a private, for profit entitiy.
Unfortunately, the developer Vince Graham, who appears to have an interest in the ideas of Ayn Rand, as the community approached its slow and long delayed build out, decided to sell our community waterfront, park and the building on it to an LLC which owned an Inn on our commercial square. This building was sold in the midst of the great recession at far below current market value. Buyer and seller both knew that this property had been promised in writing and in hundreds of real estate transactions, to the homeowners. Applications and permits filed with government agencies designated this location as belonging to the homeowners. The records of this transaction inconsistently report the state of legal title and the cloud on that title to the bank making the loan and the title insurance company. Since the ownership of the Inn LCC and its successors is secret, we can’t know which or how many of our neighbors profited from this transaction or how they were connected to our homeowners association, which didn’t act legally on it’s nominal objections to the sale.
I have not included every possible detail here. Much more can be found in the court records and filings. Anyone connected with a development like I’On owes it to their community to study and master these issues and could benefit from a careful examination of this controversy. It would be helpful if you do that before you spend three hundred and thirty thousand dollars (much more than that today) on a small house on a small lot because you’ve been sold a big dream by a developer whose talk about community may be no more than a sales pitch.
This action is a property owners derivative suit, an action brought by some of the homeowners to secure their rights under their contracts and covenants with the developer, which “run with the land” and form the legal foundation for private community in states like South Carolina. It pitts some of my neighbors against the developer, owners of the Inn and the Homeowner’s association. My neighbors want the waterfront and creek club placed in HOA ownership. The developer and inn have their defenses ready. The HOA has filed a complex and confusing brief which seems to attempt to avoid committing to anything.
This litigation has already cost the HOA over sixty thousand dollars, more than enough to build the community building we’ve needed for over a decade. This controversy has caused civic life within the community to wither. We now lack both the space to hold events and increasingly the will to hold them. Our holiday festival was cancelled due to rain while an expensive private party enjoyed a roaring fire in the Creek Club fireplace. I met a few neighbors and sipped wine under the tent where the festival was supposed to have been held in the cold drizzle. We still have some great people and they are still trying. Our once busy calendar is now largely blank. People continue to move into the community, but the sales pitch with attracts them and the web sites and literature they see are full of pictures of wonderful moments in the life of the neighborhood which are now largely over five years old.
Even now we still have some wonderful neighbors who work very hard to help enrich our common life. Their successes are still to be valued. They're deeply divided on how to deal with this destructive reality. Very little gets improved by a trip through the court system. It exists to fix blame and clear conflict from the social dynamic. It takes things apart. You do not want your neighborhood on trial if you can avoid it.
I screwed up and What I have to Do
I bear considerable responsibility for this. I’ve led tours of the community for years and wrote two neighborhood guidebooks. I authored a weekly newspaper column for 11 years in the suburban weekly, the Moultire News called Porches to Sidewalks which frequently dealt with neighborhood life and community planning issues. I wrote hundreds of announcements, press releases and flyers about community activity in I’On which were widely distributed and used to help market the community to buyers.
I believe the ideas in those things I wrote and which I write here. I accept moral responsibly for maintaining the truth of what I tell others when they rely on it. I do not however believe an idealist becomes a liar when unknowingly joins cause with thieves. I have been called as a witness. I will continue to do what I can to make things right. It is not my prerogative to simply sell my house in as is condition and walk away at this time. There is not sufficient time and energy left in my life to start over somewhere else after I leave.
This law and the type of regulation of residential land development and HOAs varies greatly from state to state. However, it would be a dangerous mistake to assume your state strictly and effectively protect the right of homeowners. As government funding has eroded, increasingly, local regulatory industries believe such matters, which are expensive to resolve should be left up to private legal action.
Progressives promote communities like I’On because they are an alternative to the social, economic and environmental disaster of sprawl. They diminish the importance of the automobile and enable transit. Our community is the only single family development in the Town of Mount Pleasant that pays more in taxes than it consumes in municipal services and overhead. Even it its current damaged state, I’On still does those things.
Conservatives like communities like I’On because their traditional architecture and approach to community promotes family values. When it’s working, the kids now someone is watching the street. The sexual predator which terrorized Mount Pleasant for weeks years ago, was arrested after he attempted to pick up a kid in I’On. It took only moments for a child to reach a friendly porch, for a license plate number to be captured and for the police to be called. This predator had worked sprawling subdivisions successfully for several days.
How safe our kids are and how successfully they’re growing up is a matter for which a complex and occasionally conflicted record has been accumulated. We have had vandalism and crime. One of my young neighbors robbed a Subway nearby with a pellet gun and is serving ten years in prison. My next door neighbor has grown into a soldier honorably serving his country in Afghanistan. My own son is deeply committed to building a better world, but he doesn’t make perfect decisions or have perfect social skills. Currently we’re very short on the kayak games in the lake, soccer games, events and activities which enable us to enrich our lives of our community’s children in ways which empower them beyond what the circle of family and school can provide. We still have our proud moments. It’s still a bit early to see what type of adults our kids will become. That is the ultimate, critical test of a community.
What Progressives and Environmental Advocates Have to Do
If you have made it this far, you are smart enough to understand that the ask is on the way. I’ve had dialogue with leaders in the environmental and progressive advocacy communities which indicate its leadership feels the quality of life in the communities they promote and holding developers responsible for delivering on their promises doesn’t have to be their concern. If the community plan limits storm water runoff and the lots are small, they choose not to get involved in the messy and divisive issue of is the community really working for the people who live there, including particularly its children. If the fish, birds and polar ice caps are OK, it doesn’t matter if the men and women who have poured a decade of work into making their ideas real end up chilly and damp under a tent while someone gets rich renting out what was supposed to their community center when the holiday festival gets rained out. Extended to what really matters, these leaders aren’t concerned about the type of citizens children who grow up in such places will become.
Then the leaders of the local environmental protection groups and progressive civic organizations wonder why public hearings are empty of young voices. They scratch their heads about why they are short of volunteers or donations. They fret over plummeting newspaper readership and voter participation. They don’t bother to consider why the communities founded in the Occupy movement turned out to be so dysfunctional and fragile. These leaders repeat think globally, act locally but the next generation isn’t making over the step between family and region because the intermediate training ground and organizing unit of the neighborhood doesn’t work any longer. They worry about our carbon foot print and climate change, but they chicken at addressing the failure which is turning that man in the Norman Rockwell Painting, Freedom of Speech into the sullen Walmart customer.
You can’t save the planet without your neighbors. They and you have to understand how to organize yourselves. You learn that holding picnics and you apply it when the politicians hold elections.
I have earned my living with my wits in the courts as an attorney for 27 years. A jury trial is the most powerful mechanism for beating the BS out of reality available in our society today. At one time our communities retained this power as well, but that has disappeared. Traditional communities in other parts of the world know which kids are in trouble and who can’t be trusted. A breach of trust is punished by a loss of status, loss of trade or social stigma. Serious breaches often result in being banished. Our current substitute in I’On is the determination not to say anything bad about anybody, which isn’t as effective as a coherent social fabric grounded in deep mutual knowledge.
Leaders of our environmental and progressive organizations which value their standing and credibility must do three things next week. I’ve asked them, but they show little interest. They need to hear from the people who write checks to them.
First- these groups need to observe and study the I'On Litigation to determine what went wrong here. They need to obtain copies of and archive the relevant documents and testimony for future study.
Second- these groups need to develop strategies for training their members, community advocates and governments on how to prevent situations like this from happening in the future so the people which rely on our advocacy obtain the benefits of the concepts and community plans we support.
Third- we need to be sure when we support plans for a new community that we educate and train the public so that it becomes more difficult for residents to be robbed of the value of new urbanism style development so that we can continue to promote and deploy such plans in the Low-country and across the nation, where hundreds of such communities are under construction today. The people we help persuade to purchase homes and live in such places should be armed with educated caution.
If we fail to do this, we are clothed in the arrogance conservatives accuse us of, selling our ideas without regard to the welfare of the people who live with their consequences. That’s unsustainable and we’re supposed to care about that and people, as well as the birds, fish and planet.