Media Coverage

Charleston’s Cahill warns of over-tourism, flooding

preservation-admin , November 3, 2022

Read the original Chowan Herald article here. 

Betsy Cahill of Charleston speaks at the lectern in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church last week.
Tyler Newman/The Chowman Herald

Chowan County may have marked a record year for tourism, but beware “over-tourism” and overdevelopment – that was the message from prominent Charleston, S.C. preservationist Betsy Cahill during a high-profile talk at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church last week.

Cahill, the Chairman of the Board of the Preservation Society of Charleston, presided over nearly 150 attendees during the annual Edenton Tea Party “Women of Distinction” lecture, hosted by the Edenton Historical Commission.

“Betsy Cahill has come to Edenton at exactly the right moment,” said EHC Director Robert Leath. “As you know, if you look at the newspaper on a weekly basis, Edenton is at a significant turning point.”

Leath noted the new John A. Holmes High School, the renovation of Kadesh AME Zion Church, the transition of Hayes Plantation from private to public, a private ferry system arriving locally and the opening of Edenton’s first waterfront restaurant in the coming weeks as examples of progress.

All of these things, coming together at once, can create a “boom” for the town and surrounding community. However, that could come with a cost, as is being learned to the south in Charleston.

“I’m struck by the many similarities between my town and yours,” Cahill said of Charleston and Edenton. “[Both are] strikingly beautiful environments, both natural and built. Each of us has a long history that we’re committed to telling in all of its fullness and complexity.”

Poised at the lectern, Cahill informed local residents, policymakers and stakeholders about ongoing conflicts in South Carolina, some of which stemming from boom periods, and how to avoid them in Edenton.

One of those conflicts, which Cahill dubbed “over-tourism,” has resulted from over 7 million annual visitors who temporarily call Charleston home – equivalent to the population of Arizona.

Cahill said that while tourists can promote growth, lead to new businesses and add revenue to city coffers, too many tourists can swamp a city and lead to policies being passed that benefit visitors rather than longtime residents and natives.

As a result, a city such as Charleston could lose its soul.

“I’m hoping that Charleston has just misplaced its soul temporarily, distracted by the glittering tourist gold,” Cahill said. “Now the Preservation Society [of Charleston] is not anti-tourism, but we do believe that over-tourism is detrimental to a truly flourishing city.”

Cahill said that scholars in the field of tourism studies have determined that when tourist-to-resident ratios reach parity, or one tourist for one resident, that is the threshold for “over-tourism.”

“We have long since crossed it [in Charleston],” Cahill said, explaining that locals often struggle to get around the city thanks to crowds, bachelorette parties and cruise ship visitors. “Managing visitation effectively is of paramount importance.”

For reference, Edenton’s population was just 4,397 as of 2020. Annual tourist numbers are not known, but the town is a popular heritage tourism destination.

One solution, Cahill said, was raising ticket prices for city tours or events. By doing so, preservationists have lowered numbers of tourists but recouped more money from less overall costs. As a result, more folks have joined the Preservation Society as well.

Another issue ongoing in Charleston is flooding. The city is around eight feet above sea level and exposed to the ocean via the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers in Charleston Harbor.

The Army Corps of Engineers has pushed for a $1.1 billion sea wall around 12 feet in height to protect Charleston’s peninsula from flooding – caused by anything from high tides, storm surge, subsidence and rising seas.

Edenton is at similar risk, being a low-lying town open to the Albemarle Sound. Hurricanes approaching from the south frequently drive water inland and parts of town often flood during summer rainstorms. To make matters worse, Edenton’s stormwater system is outdated or strained in many locations.

Cahill stressed that integrating flood adaptation strategies and resiliency measures with historic preservation can serve to protect the centuries-old homes and structures in both Charleston and Edenton.

Preservationists in Charleston have also been working on house elevation, working with leading experts on the subject to create architectural guidelines that assist homeowners trying to adapt to changing conditions.

Some homes in Chowan County, near bodies of water, are already elevated. Many more, however, such as along Water Street in downtown Edenton, are not, and sit precariously close to the bay.

Shifting topics to overdevelopment, which can sometimes go hand-in-hand with over-tourism, Cahill said Charleston has fallen victim to explosive growth that often neglects the city’s historic character and charming soul. New high-rises and apartment complexes now resemble something seen in Atlanta or Charlotte rather than a historic coastal city.

“The Preservation Society [of Charleston] is not against growth, we are for managed growth undergirded by some kind of vision,” Cahill said. “A vision that incorporates resilience planning, demands architectural quality that is worthy of Charleston, provides for green space and protect existing neighborhoods’ quality of life.”

She blamed a rapid pace of development and seeming inability of elected leadership to articulate such a vision for growth (and how to manage it) on Charleston’s predicament.

“As long as we [Charleston] have a really strong mayor who knows how to handle all of the politics around this, we’ll be okay.” Cahill said. “But we don’t have that now. We’ve got a city council that’s fractured and really the only people who care about the historic district are the people who live there.”

Other issues plaguing Charleston that could echo in Edenton include inadequate infrastructure and racial and economic disparities.

Cahill urged Edenton to emphasize placing residents first, while choosing leaders who manage growth and tourism responsibly, all while seeking to adapt to risks from the environment and promote inclusion in often ignored groups and neighborhoods.

She said that Edenton should plan carefully and learn from other communities that are years and decades ahead, such as Charleston, to avoid common pitfalls.

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