When I hear proponents of the new Union Pier master plan assert that an important by-product of development will be the installation of much-needed water management infrastructure for the Charleston peninsula — to deal with stormwater, sea level rise and hurricane storm surge — I am skeptical.

The idea of building a “City on a Hill” — credit to Faith Rivers James of Coastal Conservation League for use of the phrase in a Post and Courier forum — as a cost-free way to mitigate the peninsula’s problems with water is not intuitive. It also does not seem plausible: There is no such thing as free infrastructure. The city will pay now or give up tax revenue later. Why not just go directly to a water management plan and skip the City on a Hill?

The Union Pier plan initially filed by the State Ports Authority and its consultant and buyer-developer designate, Lowe, calls for the 64-acre flood zone site to be raised by as much as 16 feet above sea level and then for buildings of up to seven stories to be built on on top of all that. It sounds like a fill-and-build approach that City Council recently, and appropriately, rejected for Johns Island. Why fill-and-build would be appropriate for the historic peninsula when it is no longer deemed appropriate for Johns Island is a question the city should answer publicly before approving any Union Pier planned unit development.

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