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Board of Zoning Appeals - September 21

Board has it both ways on McLeod Plantation
Patricia Jones who covers Zoning

A tied vote of 3-3 brought to defeat the requested special exception sought by the School of Building Arts(SOBA). But with board member Smith unhappy with the outcome, a motion was made to approve the requested exception but with some restrictions. The motion passed in a 5 to 1 vote.

Now that the McLeod Plantation falls into the School Overlay district following the vote on City Council last week, SOBA, the purchaser of the property, is required to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals in order to plan building and construction and meet the ordinances imposed by the overlay.

Board has second thoughts
What upset us, and everybody opposed to the acquisition of the Plantation by SOBA was the seeming flip by the Board on its first decision. After hearing arguments from both those for and against, the Board voted 3 to 3 not to grant the request. Larry Krawchek the Chairman of the Board declared the request for an exception "denied". A tied vote by law is a vote to deny. So most people involved in the McLeod dispute rose and left the room, with those against it, rejoicing in victory. A Board member, Margaret Smith was concerned for some reason about the decision. So after the first decision, she proposed that the request be granted subject to SOBA ensuring that parking would be confined to only 85 spaces and 100 users. After all, it was only parking that was an issue. This new motion was passed with a 5 to 1 vote.

A decision was made that we would have thought was binding. Then the Board reconsiders and has a vote on parking. It ignores much of the argument in relation to parking problems and traffic flow and produces a cosmetic solution that allows the vote to succeed. What was the Board thinking? We can guess.

An angry audience
A message for the Board! The Friends of McLeod are angry. They feel an injustice has been done. You did not feel the mood as they streamed into the vestibule. They are talking of court action. We don't know whether there are grounds for moving to litigation, but if there is a glimmer of possible success, don't doubt the resolution or the amount of funds to pursue it.

Board skeptical about SOBA parking assumptions
Let's look at what we consider the two major issues before the Board last night in relation to McLeod. Firstly parking. Mr. Rosen and Mr. Altman aggressively questioned spokesmen for SOBA about their assumptions in relation to parking. SOBA expects to provide parking for 85 vehicles but notes that cars could park on roads within the Plantation and total parking could amount to 100 cars. But considering the number of students at the school, board members thought this would not be enough and there would be cars parked on the streets to the detriment of residents. No, said SOBA, we are going to be a pedestrian friendly school. Many people will ride bikes to school and we will also be arranging a shuttle. Be real, said the board members, do you really thinks this will work? A student in the audience agreed. Students don't generally bicycle, they use cars.

Will there only be 144 students as SOBA says?
Another issue related to parking was the number of students. SOBA said that there would be no more than 144 students and the total complement of people at SOBA would be near 200 with the addition of staff and helpers. This figure is at odds with that told to Charlestonwatch about 3 weeks ago. Mr. AvRutick stated that the number of students would be slightly less than 200. Warwick Jones specifically remembers Mr. AvRutick doing the calculation as follows - 48 students in each class with a degree stretching over 4 years comes to 4 times 48 which is 192. Mr. AvRutick has stated elsewhere that 144 is the number of students he expects in each class. So where does the 144 come from? Does he expect significant drop out? And if we take the 192 students as the correct figure, the complement at the school rises to near 250. The potential shortage of parking spaces now becomes real.

And what about parking for visitors?
As one member of the audience pointed out, the parking at McLeod Plantation will be stretched just to meet the requirements of the students and staff. Where do the visitors go? After all it was the major tenet of the Historic Charleston Foundation to allow visitors free access to the site. Maybe they will have free access but they will have to park in the streets around the Plantation. So the residents will still be inconvenienced. This issue was not addressed by the Board.

SOBA and City downplay potential traffic problems
And what about traffic? The spokesmen for SOBA and the City quoted figures for road usage around the Plantation. For example on Tatum Road, where one of the entrances to the school will be located, the maximum usage was cited at 643 cars a day when its capacity was 1500 a day. So, there is plenty of unused capacity and there would be no traffic problems if SOBA acquired the Plantation. A similar statistic was applied to Harborview Road where the other entrance is located. Mr. Robert George, speaking in a capacity of an engineer and a resident of James Island and not as a member of City Council blasted this phony statistic. The number of cars a day is not measure of potential traffic problems. If cars passed over the road at an equal rate every hour, there would be no problem. But this is not reality. Cars passing over the roads are concentrated in short periods, in the morning and afternoon. There certainly would be the potential for traffic problems at these times. And indeed, there are traffic jams now at peak periods and at school openings and closing times. The positioning of a school at McLeod would exacerbate this. He said that the confidence of SOBA that traffic problems will not occur was not enough. A professional study was vital.

What was also remarkable was the fact that Tatum Road is controlled by the SC Department of Transport and not the City of Charleston. This road will lead to one of the entrances of the Plantation. Yet neither SOBA nor the City has made contact with SCDOT about the proposed plans.

HCF claims Charleston cannot support another tourist venue
There were other issues as well. We were intrigued by the statement of Mr. Frank Brumley, President of the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF). He stated that Charleston could not support another tourist venue. We are not sure what this means. Presumably he feels there are not enough residents and tourists to make economically viable all the tourist attractions of Charleston and the conversion of McLeod to a museum would dilute the attendance at other attractions. This is not a view worthy of a President of the HCF. The role of the HCF should be preservation, not the profitability of running historic plantations. Besides we disagree with his statement. The more plantations and historic houses there are in Charleston, the more the draw on visitors. Would a visitor come to Charleston to visit just Drayton Hall say? Probably not, but if there are a large number of plantations, as there is now, the draw is much larger. Adding McLeod to the inventory would help draw more visitors in our view.

Reference to sanctity of the site
Speakers referred to the sanctity of the site and possible archaeological relics that could be lost by passing control to SOBA. Certainly a graveyard had been defined but surveys of the site have been superficial and there was the strong possibility of substantially more graves elsewhere. As well, the site had been dwelt on for centuries and there were many possible relics that remained to be unearthed. The City and SOBA said that development would be sensitive to these issues but many in the audience were unconvinced.

It was also interesting to read the P&C's report of the meeting last night. It was short and made no mention of the first vote by the Board. As usual, we wonder why? As usual, we came up with the same old conclusion.

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I applaud the Charleston Watch. Writing this article is necessary because our mainstream media has been so underinvolved. This is an excellent magazine and internet site. Your coverage of the major issues affecting our wonderful city are worthy of tremendous praise. Thank you Charleston Watch.

Posted by: Charles Watts at September 24, 2004 02:42 PM